28 Dec 2006
The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing. Here is a fundamental distinction, which can be expressed in many ways: map/territory, idea/reality, thought/existence, representation/represented. In thought and logic, division and distinction is all. “A” is not “not A”, and never the twain shall meet. Whatever is said, here or elsewhere, is going to be part of a map, a representation of “what is”. If what we say is honest, faithful and true, then we will be producing an accurate, meaningful map, but it is important to bear in mind that it is only ever a map and it takes its meaning from the territory. Everything that is said is indicating, pointing to something else, something beyond the words. We are talking about the meaning of life, but we should not expect to find it in the words we use, or the thoughts we have.
Many a good town map has a label on it saying “You are here”. Of course it’s only true when you’re looking at the map. What is always “here” is the map itself. There are two things to be noticed: (1) the map and the territory are both represented on the map; (2) the map is a genuine part of the territory. In the end, the distinction breaks down; “A” is a part of “not A” and “not A” is in turn a part of “A”. This may all seem rather abstract and confusing, and this is because what I am trying to indicate here is a limitation of thought, and that is something that thought cannot grasp.
All our thoughts and ideas, all the activity of our busy minds, is a map of “what is”. If the map is an accurate representation of the territory, it is meaningful, but if it is distorted, untruthful or imaginary, then it loses meaning. Suppose the bus company published the timetable they would like to run if they had more resources instead of the one that they could actually achieve; it would be useless, meaningless. Now one of the most persistent, busiest ideas in my mind is the idea of myself. Everything seems to get connected to this idea because the idea of myself is the map of the map, the “You are here” label. At this point thought makes an almost inevitable mistake; seeing the map of the territory containing the map of the map, it mistakes itself for the map of the map, and not the whole map. So the map and the map of the map take on an enormous significance, myself becomes more important than anything else, thought becomes the world, and error and distortion result, which leads to a loss of meaning.
There are the facts of my life, where I was born, my upbringing, education, qualifications, occupation, habits, religion, nationality, skin colour, etc. and there is no problem with these - they are not a source of conflict. But then there is my and other’s interpretation of, and attitude to, the facts. I was born and brought up in England and now I live here in Wales – “No problem.” I say, but to some people there is a problem; “Wales for the Welsh, English go home.” The facts of my life have become an identity - I have been identified as English. I’ve lived here for 15 years, my children have been brought up here, I vote for the national assembly, but there is no point in argument pitting fact against fact. The question is, what is the importance of the facts, to me and to the other fellow. Ownership, entitlement, honour, this is where there is conflict; my country, right or wrong? my religion, right? my profession, under-paid? my people, sadly misunderstood?
Why do we adopt and impose these identities? Perhaps it is for security, not to be alone; perhaps for convenience, to take advantage of other people; perhaps we cannot bear the feeling of being nothing. Even the identity of “madman” has its uses as an excuse. There is such comfort in knowing who you are, and knowing that it is “good” to be that thing, that people will happily die to maintain it, indeed that is the very stuff of being a good Englishman or Christian or whatever.
If I am a teacher, you know not only who I am and how I’m likely to behave, but also how to respond - to listen and learn and ask polite questions. But if I am not the teacher, then you don’t know what to expect or what is expected of you. Then there is the encounter of two unknowns, and the past cannot help us.
In this world of instant, global interconnectedness, communication skills are seen to be very important, we put it on our CVs “good communication skills.” What is communication, is it a skill, is it important? If we mean the ability to persuade people of something, to move them, motivate them, manipulate them, then advertisers, politicians, charismatic religious leaders are good communicators. This is a skill that can be learned to a great extent through the study of psychology and the practice of acting. If you want to be one of the movers and shakers, this is what you need.
But I want to talk about something quite different, something that we might do together, not one do to another. The word “communication” has the same root as “common”, which means sharing. If we can share our questions, insights and confusion without trying to convert, persuade or control each other, perhaps there may be a meeting of minds - a meeting of equals as friends. This requires something quite other than psychological knowledge or acting skill; I cannot be “better” at meeting you than you are at meeting me – that’s not meeting at all! So this kind of communication requires some humility, not someone who thinks of himself or herself as a “good communicator”. If I’m trying to persuade you, or sell you something, to get you to think or do or be something, that’s not what I mean by communication.
The quality of listening is important here; we need to listen to ourselves and to each other, not accepting or rejecting what is said, but checking it out - does this make sense, does it agree with my own understanding, am I being honest? I’m not talking about counselling techniques or any method, learned or habitual; anything, which is set up in advance, can only act as a barrier to us meeting. In listening there needs to be freedom from duty, effort and technique, and a genuine interest in the other person, in what is being said, and in one’s own response. So if I notice that I am getting bored and my attention is wandering, I might ask myself why; is it because nothing interesting is being said, or is something being talked about that I am reluctant to go into, or is there something more important on my mind? Then I might or might not want to say something, or ask something. What I hope I won’t be doing is gritting my teeth and trying to concentrate, or letting the conversation pass by in a dream, and if I find myself doing that, again I will look to see why.
We come here each with our own burden of thought, belief, fear, hope, etc. Our minds are preoccupied with our own affairs, and this is the difficulty. If our minds are already full, there is no room for meeting; there is no room for you in my mind or for me in your mind. In asking ourselves how we can make some space, there is a danger that we will arrive at a method, of meditation or of self-expression, but these things only add to the clutter of our minds, when what we need is some empty space. Can we ask the question, but refuse to answer it?
Meaning, Value, Purpose.
Purpose relates a thing to something else, something beyond itself, to a before of someone who purposes or plans and to an after of some effect or result. So if life has a purpose, it has to have a purpose to someone who is beyond and behind life, and an end result beyond death in the hereafter. There are plenty of people who claim to know about God’s plan and the hereafter, and many others who say that there is no God, nothing beyond life, and therefore no purpose to life. My position is that everything that I can see or know or experience is part of life and not beyond it, if I have some revelation, true or false, it is part of my life, so I prefer to leave all that on one side. When we are dead, perhaps we can talk about these things.
Value also relates a thing to a person, something has value to someone, and it at least invites comparison - I value this more than that. This means that life is the necessary condition of value, without life I cannot value anything, so to talk of the value of life is to talk of the value of value. Life has infinite value or it has none. To ask whether it is worth laying down one’s life for another is a wrong question, to answer it requires one again to see beyond life, it takes us back to purpose.
Meaning is a word of many slippery uses, and my reason for talking about purpose and value first is to clear a space in our minds for the word to occupy. I do not want to talk about the meaning of the word “meaning”, I want to talk about the meaning of life. Our coming together, our discussions, may have more meaning than is contained in the things we say; there may be more meaning than we intend. I don’’ say that it is so, or that it is not, but I want to suggest that to look for meaning in the sense that I mean, is to look at the thing in question and not at something or someone else. So I have a purpose in mind in starting these discussions, which I hope we will all find valuable, and that purpose is to look for meaning in life.
We are always looking for something new, in art, science and the media. Creative writing courses abound; television especially, is hungry for new ideas. So it is natural to ask where new ideas come from and whether it is possible to learn or teach people to be more creative. Perhaps, indeed there is nothing new under the sun, and all we ever have is a rearrangement of the old. Certainly there is a great deal of that going on, but occasionally, with Einstein or Van Gogh say, there seems to be something genuinely new, something original and creative happening. Is this something peculiar to a few individuals, or is it potentially available to everyone? I am very interested, not because I want to be famous or rich, Van Gogh had neither in his lifetime, but because being creative seems to me to be essential for life to have some real worth or meaning.
There is a very old, mythical idea of a Cornucopia, or horn of plenty, an animal’s horn that is an inexhaustible source of food and drink and all good things. The open end is a wide mouth from which everything flows like water gushing from a pipe, but the other end, the source, tapers down to nothing. It is contrary to common sense, but creativity must be something like this, because to be original means precisely not to have come from anywhere else but to start here. So the source of creativity, of anything new, is nothing and nowhere; it has to be so, otherwise it would not be new but just a rearrangement of what is old.
Now when I think about myself, I am seeing myself with the eyes of memory, all my ideas about myself are old ideas, old knowledge, old habits (habits are always old aren’t they?). If there is anything new about me, it is not that, so it would be foolish of me to say “I am creative.” I might say, “I was creative”, but that too is old, so whatever is new is not “me” and is unknown. What is difficult, because it is frightening, is to let go of the known habitual me, to let go of my ideas about time and space, or the principles of art and painting, and without letting go of the old there is no room for the new. There needs to be some emptiness, some “nothing” in my mind from which new thoughts, new understanding can come; if I am “full of myself” full of my own ideas and knowledge which are all old, there can never be anything creative.
Life and Death.
We tend to think of life and death as opposites. It’s getting hard to draw the line with modern medicine, but in general the difference is clear. I know that I am alive now and I will be dead eventually, but I prefer not to think about that very much. In fact my mind seems to slide off somehow; “being dead” is almost a contradiction - “dead” is “not being”. Death comes to us all, and yet when it arrives we are not there. Many people say that there is life after death, the body dies but we continue somehow, somewhere. Perhaps they are right, I don’t know, but that is not what I mean by death. When I talk about my death, I mean the end of me; if there is never an end of me, then I am talking about nothing.
Some things are not alive. Talk to a rock, caress it, flatter it, mock it, it does not respond; leave it alone, it does not move; there is no life in it. I tend to think of myself as continuing through time; I stay more or less the same while the world changes around me. But life is always moving, changing, responding, so this image of a fixed “me” is the image of something dead like the rock that carries on the same no matter what. Life is always new, always renewing itself, and this means that it is always dying. Yesterday’s response will not do for today, things have changed. The old bob needs to die so that a new bob can come into being. If I keep saying the same thing each week, you will all get bored and stop listening, but if I am alive to the difference in you from week to week, from moment to moment, then my thought and my talk will change responsively - we will respond to each other. It seems that life and death are not separate, but one process which goes on in me all the time, from moment to moment. If I try to postpone my death until some distant tomorrow, I am trying to be a rock; I am trying to be already dead. And this rock of unchanging self becomes a terrible burden to me that I have to protect and carry with me, the source of all my fear. So when someone says “There is no death.” I reply, “Please, God, let it not be true!” because without death, there can be no birth; death has to come before birth.
Plato, Jesus, Shakespeare, Newton, Bill Gates; - two thousand years of culture influence what I say, and shapes the world I live in, not to mention the forgotten heroes who invented fire, metal- working, pottery, the wheel, etc. Culture is like the heartwood of a tree, the remains of previous years of growth, that no longer lives, but supports and shapes the new green twigs and leaves of our present lives.
The names I give are the ones I know, and you will know others that influence you, but we all live amongst the bones of the ancestors. Their influence is not always benign, and we do not owe them any favours. At least that is what my ancestors say; yours may have different ideas.
Indeed, the whole of this introduction is written from a particular culture which happens to have dominated and exploited half the world for the last few centuries, but which has no special claim to the authority of the truth, let alone any moral authority. It seems to me though, that culture and identity are in the end the same thing, they are history and knowledge and all that is the past, and we urgently need to be free of it all. It seems that we cannot be free by forgetting or ignoring it, because it is what we are, and what we seek to become or to escape from; perhaps we can be free by examining it together in the mirror of relationship.
13 Sep 2006
This morning in the woods, amongst the undergrowth dying back at the end of the summer, I came across a little clump of flowers standing bright purple in the greens and browns. And if I hadn't been that way, if no one had seen them? Well I did see them and the seeing was a joy; but they did not need me to see them to justify their existence, and that too was a joy.
We should not call them suicide bombers; they are martyrdom bombers. Their purpose is their own happiness in paradise by means of doing God a big favour. Apparently, God wants us all to be Muslims, and He needs the help of the faithful to destroy the infidel. It's hard work, but the pay is excellent. Well, my faith is that each thing and each person is their own justification; this limited, confused and often unhappy person who is writing, and that limited and confused person who is blowing himself up - God sees that we are good; not good because He sees, not good because we do his will or fulfill his purpose, nor our own purposes, not good for anything, just good.
Dying is part of life. Things that don't die, like stones, are not alive. The two things are inseparable parts of one process. Birth and death are the limits of myself and myself is a limit on what exists. My skin separates me from, and joins me to the world, as my death separates me from and joins me to the life of the world; it is the limit of the limitation called me. And after, so we are told by those that heard it and misunderstood, comes paradise. But paradise comes first not last, and it is paradise and eternal precisely because there is no self, no me in it; it consists of the end of that limitation.
And that is the end of this line of thought; but the world continues...
18 Aug 2006
It goes for politics and religion even more so, and I have been struck of late by how some people you can very easily talk to and some you can't. I'm fascinated by the possibility of communication - it seems a rare and wonderful thing that requires minds that are open to something new. So I am always going to be more interested in philosophies that are incomplete and provisional; once they have hardened into systems, with axioms laid out on tablets of stone, I start to find that there is nothing to do or say, except to accept or reject. People who have adopted this sort of system will tend to discount anthing which does not conform to the axioms as 'nonsense'. All they will do is show you, with more or less patience and condescension, where you have 'gone wrong'. In other words, they are impossible to talk to as they inhabit a different conceptual world. I quite like to try to liberate people from the confines of their certainty, but mostly it proves fruitless, and one learns to conserve one's energy and avoid the most obvious hardliners. One way to spot them early is by the tendency not to even attempt to understand what one is trying to say, but merely to pick up on some key word, God, freedom, identity, or some such, and rush in to tell you what it 'really means' (I'm looking at you, John).
11 Aug 2006
By way of excuse/explanation/ for not laying my swine before pearls for a while, I shall now discourse on pain.
I don't react very well to pain; it makes me even more irritable than usual, and I can't concentrate on anything. To be specific I have a 'bad back' and every then and right now, it 'goes'. When it happens I rush to take some nice pills that anti-inflame it a bit, and suddenly get all conscientious about doing exercises and stretches. What I don't generally do is be philosophical about it - it hurts, it's a pain, I don't like it, my life becomes a misery. Theoretically I know that pain is necessary; people who either don't feel pain, or who feel it but it doesn't hurt (that sounds weird but it happens), get into trouble and damage themselves. The pain when I move makes me rest and allows the body to heal, bla bla bla... Yeah but it hurts all the time and I'm all full of self pity and rage and I don't care about anything except I want it to stop.
Where I work is a hotel for disabled people, and one of the worst things is that I can see my own troubles are insignificant in relation to some of our guests, and yet they are, by and large, the nicest people you could wish to meet, and this is a bit of a mystery to me. If I was bedridden, incontinent, unable to eat solid food, hardly able to breathe or in constant pain, as a condition of life - permanently, I think I would be unbearable to live with, yet these people are an inspiration, generous, loving, full of humour, and clearly enjoying life to the max. How do they do it? Is pain good for the soul? It sure doesn't seem so in my case - but perhaps I'm biased? The other week there was a couple, must have been in their nineties, he used a walking frame, while she was in a wheelchair. And he came to ask me to lift his wife on and off the toilet, she had MS to go with her arthritis and something else which I forget, and he was just too frail to help her. And yet the love and joy that emanated from them, their simple humanity and warmth... I can't really convey, but it was a privilege to help them, bad back or no.
21 Jul 2006
But the whole concept of the selfish gene in the first place is just anthropomorphism gone ugly. You don't have to be a brilliant geneticist to notice that genes can only survive by cooperation, both within the organism and with the environment. Selfishness, almost by definition, is a form of myopic short-termism. Selfishness is a peculiarly human disease, which pervades the practice of science as it does every human practice, although the methods and principles of scientific enquiry are designed to eliminate this 'personal bias'. An old fashioned (non-evolutionary) psychologist such as myself, detects in the selfish-gene theory a case of gross projection, which goes a long way to explaining its popularity - our human failings become necessities of nature, and not our fault after all. I am not arguing for creationism, but there is more psychological sense to me in the idea of a fall from a state of innocence, from nature as Eden, into as state of conflict arising from self-awareness as the knowledge ofgood and evil. This self-awareness is what separates and distinguishes humanity from the natural world, and this gives rise to our contradictory relations on the one hand to God and on the other hand to Nature - our internal divisions result in a separate and separating relation to both. Our fall is out of the world, and into thought and time. What interests me is not the survival of thought as meme, or the replacement of religious with scientific memes, but the ending of thought as meme.
I think it was Steve Jones, the geneticist who said that while we share 98% of our genes with chimpansees, we also share 50% of them with the banana. It seems that the whole of the living environment is a close relative in genetic terms. If that 50% of us influenced our vaunted intelligence, we would all be radical environmentalists, like St Francis, whose brothers and sisters were birds and animals. But if genes are not selfish, perhaps there is a gene for selfishness unique to humans and closely associated with intelligence. The way we tend to think of ourselves and the way we generally behave is very much 'as if' we had different, selfish genes (or are they just memes?). The endless conflicts of class, race, nationality, religion, culture are very much based on identification of 'people like us' against 'others'. But the genetic facts deny such identifications and distinctions and cannot be used to either explain or justify them. On the contrary, the way we behave in general 'explains' why we have come up with this strange theory.
Evolutionary psychology makes great use of game theory, and gains the credibility of mathematics thereby. But game theory assumes the reality of seperate identifiable individuals with differing interests, it is not clear that it is relevant to something that is 98% chimp and 50% banana. It's not that there is no competition in the natural world - round here the squabbling of seagulls is completely commonplace - but it is misleading as a dominant metaphor for evolutionary processes, because competition is only possible on the basis of a more fundamental cooperation. In order for game theory to apply, we have already to be in agreement about playing the game.
Bananas do not want to survive; they do not compete with us or with each other. They live and develop according to their (genetic) nature, and reproduce, or not. Chimps are more complex; they seem to like their children, and look after them; they seem more consciously to compete and cooperate, but we do not attribute to them a desire to continue their 'bloodline' as we used to call it before we discovered genes. One can see how our ideas of family, tribe, nation, race self have arisen from our complex behaviour as social animals, but it does not seem useful to then use those ideas to explain how this complex behaviour came into being, let alone to explain the fundamental processes of nature.
25 Jun 2006
I am fairly familiar with the world, and to the extent that I am, it is natural. For example, I live by the sea; the tide comes in and goes out on a regular basis; it acts as expected by and large. Then there is a tsunami. This is unexpected and therefore unnatural; therefore it is supernatural. This is in barest outline, a ‘natural history’ of the way that Nature comes to be defined in a dual opposition to Man and God.
It is fairly obvious to me at least that nature is defined as being known or at least knowable, while God is the unknown, unpredictable. Of course there is always someone ready to come forward to interpret these unnatural events for me, or I can invent my own story to explain them, the point is that they need some explaining, as opposed to the tide, which is ‘natural’.
Now along comes science and says well here’s a better explanation for tsunami, or eclipses or whatever unnatural thing you may wish to consider, and actually if you look carefully you will see that all these things are perfectly natural, and are only to be expected. In fact as it happens, everything, including man, is quite natural – it was quite natural for us to have thought of God as an explanation in the old days, and it is quite natural for people to be reluctant to give up old ideas, but these explanations are not needed any more, and have no real meaning or value.
But to say that something is natural is not to explain anything, it is simply to say that no explanation is needed. ‘Man’ is ‘naturally’ selfish, as is ‘Nature’ itself. And this is somehow more satisfying, more useful, and more rational than a ‘religious’ explanation?
11 Jun 2006
Even the shops are now warehouses marooned in a sea of cars. And that expensive sound-system of yours only plays one song; boom, boom, boom, boom, as if the engine-noise is not loud or ugly enough on its own.
This is not freedom or democracy, it is a tyranny of manufactured desire become a nightmare. Even the sea and the sky are no-longer immune from your need for speed; the infernal racket of your desperate chasing after - what? Another place, another feeling, a futile and temporary escape from the emptiness of yourself.
I hate the complacent naturalness of it all; of course we must travel, of course we must have this freedom - What freedom? In any town it is hard to walk 100 metres without having to defer to the holy car's priority. And where, even in the country, can one escape the wretched noise; and how does one get there?
It is alive; it sees, it thinks
Ten million things. And here
In this little space, for a moment it thinks,
'How extrordinary! How marvelous!
It is alive...'
And as I think and write, from beneath my seat
a small grey lizard scuttles across the path.
I cannot catch it with my words;
It is immune to my wonder,
Safe, hiding in the bushes.
2 Jun 2006
The Friends of Wisdom have been discussing what’s wrong with science – which seems to be that it has no values, or rather that it has hidden and highly suspect values, which it cannot consider and take account of. I find this somewhat confusing: science as a method, a practice, an institution, a body of knowledge, a system of technological innovation, a community of scholars, whatever it is, it does what it does, and we who do it, pay for it, enjoy its fruits, do whatever we do with it. Its values are our values. When the Chinese invented gunpowder, they had a different name and a different use for it – they made fireworks. Same powder, different values. Is there a problem with calling the making of the powder science, and the use of it something else, art or ethics or politics? Of course in the world, things cannot be separated like this, but thought and talk can only get going by making some distinct categories. I separate thought from world, fact from value, division from unity, and it is all thought making distinctions that are not separate in reality.
Seems to me that the success or progress of science exposes to us the complete lack of our development in wisdom or virtue – whatever we want to call this ‘other’ aspect of our lives – but why shoot the messenger? It might be convenient to have a scientific answer to how we should live, a science bible, but it’s a contradiction; science doesn’t do that. Science says that we are warming the earth with CO2 emissions, and the climate will change and sea levels will rise, leading to mass extinctions. It also explains what we might do to change this scenario – if we want to. It does not tell us that we either do or should ‘want to’.
I used to have a recurring dream – a nightmare I suppose. It wasn’t either images or words so it’s hard to describe. I was in a field, not a grassy field with hedges just an uncharacterised, but limited space, and there was a sense of huge constriction, an inescapable weight of the ‘sky’ about to crush me, and no way to escape it. When I was about 14, I suddenly realised that this dream was a birth memory – the wordless formless claustrophobia of uterine contractions. I never had the dream again after recognising it. Here is my psychological beginning: first memory, first trauma, first fear, the first distinction. Here is a value – I value not being crushed; I value the freedom of the un-contracting womb. Self, value, and psychological time come into existence with memory. I was un-constricted; I was constricted; I want to be un-constricted now, and I fear being constricted tomorrow.
I am so sensitive to my own pain, to my own fear and desire, that I give hardly a squirrel’s glance to the feelings of others. I cannot relate my time to geological time, the time that formed the rocks and fossils behind me, or even to the social time, a century and a half, that formed the town in front of me. How can I be concerned with the planet, when I haven’t even recovered from the trauma of birth? But I feel that trauma itself as a constriction, a limit to thought and feeling, which I want to be free of, and so I overlay this with a construction of ‘higher values’ – I want to be free of the constriction that my fear of constriction puts me under. But my higher values are merely the repetition of my primal fear – just another contraction on the road to the freedom of birth.
18 May 2006
16 Apr 2006
14 Apr 2006
But being unconditional - non dependent - it cannot persuade; it has no power over evil. This is not to say that it does not act at all, this is not a council of despair; but its action is not one of power, and the battle of the title does not take place.
Or if it does, it is a battle where evil, which is always divided and in conflict, defeats itself without any influence from good, which is by definition absent. Ah, if only this selfish self could fully realise this...
11 Apr 2006
10 Apr 2006
1 Apr 2006
Requiem for Counselling
Only when you begin to lose that Alpha and. Omega do you want to start toSome months ago, I had an awakening, a realisation, a glimpse of the possibility of a new way of living, with real communication, real community. I knew that I needed help and that I could give help. I joined a short Introductory Counselling course, and started reading Carl Rogers; I was frightened but excited, and determined to change my life. Respect, Genuineness, Empathy, yes! Faith in the individual, of course! Recognizing in these concepts the way of being with people that I had glimpsed, I began to see in counselling – for the first time in my life - a place where I could be myself and also be an accepted, contributing member of society. I had found my vocation.
talk and to write, and then there is no end to it, words, words, words.
Almost from the beginning of the course, I had a problem with 'empowerment'. Here is an extract from my journal from week two. After considering some experiences of my partner, who is black, in terms of respect, I start to consider 'power'.
"Last night I read 'Black Boy' by Richard Wright. Every relationship he has is infected and distorted by power; within the family, between black people, everywhere. Northern whites of goodwill are constrained by the racist society of the south and a real relationship is impossible. The white man in a racist society can refrain from exercising power, but he cannot abdicate, in the same way that my middle class well-educated English upbringing remains available to me, although I am unemployed and usually choose to avoid using that power. My own experience of this kind of situation was at a minor public school. There were no lynchings, but the structure of the school society was very similar and the emotions and relationships were the same, though obviously far less intense - it was bad enough! Basically, the class structure was replicated with the big ones having power over the little ones. This was maintained by dividing each class into four 'houses' like nations or races, thus diverting any possible resistance in the lower orders towards an artificial conflict within the class. The other feature which maintained the power was its unquestionability. Power relations could not be discussed or acknowledged. There was a complex rhetoric of unity, democracy, Christian values, fair play and sportsmanship which denied the reality of the situation, which was the exact opposite of the talk.... What I want to look at is how these social/political phenomena relate to counselling and counselling training. The power structure of the course is demonstrated in the financial and the seating arrangements. The one who is paid as opposed to paying is the one who controls the door and the seating and the board, and on whom the rest are focused, who organises the games but does not participate in them. At the same time, we are being taught a language - a rhetoric – of respect, genuineness, empathy, non-judgement, tolerance, equality, responsibility, etc. There is the same contradiction between structure and rhetoric, between the talk and the reality, that struck me at school; Double-think! The goal of counselling is empowerment but the method is the standard hierarchical system and the initiation and training is precisely designed to ensure that all the power remains with the counsellor/trainer. Not only is the 'client' not empowered in the relationship/ s/he is also required to be 'responsible' for the disempowerment of the social situation which is the cause of the meeting. The counsellor is subverted into acting as a means of social control, diverting the pain and dissatisfaction of the individual away from its source in the structure of social relations towards internal relations; 'divide and rule on the level of the individual psyche."
Two weeks later, I borrowed a book from the library:- Group Counselling 4th edition, by Gerald Corey. It seemed to be an important book as there were several copies; I think it is a set book for the diploma course. This book hurt me and it hurt my partner. I spent some time writing an unsolicited essay criticising the book's attitude to issues of race. This was, and is an important issue for me. The book promoted a dangerous attitude to ethnic minorities, and I wanted the department to take some action;- to challenge the views being expressed. I gave the essay to my tutor with a note asking him to pass it on to his colleagues and hoping that they would start to look for material by black people instead of about them and suggesting that they might like to organise a workshop on race.
The following week, I was given a controlled ten-minute chat by my tutor in which he explained that the essay had made him rethink some of his ideas, but there was not much he could do to change anything. He did not run the Group Counselling course; he didn't know anything about publishing articles; the department couldn't let unqualified people (my partner and I) give talks on racism. Lacking the time, and the confidence, to respond directly, I reply in my journal:- "How predictable, P, that you deny your own and your department's power to change reality, as an excuse for disempowering me.... From my disempowered position as "unqualified', "unemployed'/ etc. I am reclaiming the power that you and your department have usurped. I am a Rogerian, and you by your actions are not. I claim equal right to assess you and the course as you claim the right to assess me and this journal. Carl Rogers had to fight for the right to practice before he could even begin to empower others."
At the end of the journal, I am debating with myself whether or not to apply for the next course:- "...I don't have a choice. All choice is conflict, but now I can be happy; I have no choice. I am right to be angry at falseness. I am right to be afraid and ashamed of the world we are making. I am right to be fighting to empower the downtrodden and oppressed. And I am right to be starting with the counselling trainers of XXXX College. I am a whole, feeling, growing person; it's your choice if you want me on the next course, my course is set and in judging me you are really only judging yourselves. It is a hard choice for you because either way, all this and more is going to leap out of this journal and into the wide world. I have a faltering sense of my own power and it satisfies me deeply to allow you the power that you claim and deny in the traditional contradiction of oppressors."
Three months later, I am vibrating as I type, with the resonance of the feelings expressed in my journal. I am waiting for my journal to be returned, waiting for an interview for next year's course, getting involved with CRUSE, talking, reading, writing/ living. The other day, I came across some back issues of The BAC Journal/ which have reawakened my interest in the relationships between counselling as an activity and as an institution, and between the profession of Counselling and the related professions of Social-work, and Psychiatry. Thomas Szasz, who did much to draw attention to the relationship between the social and the psychological, gave this warning:-
"The general principle that a liberating rule may, in due time, become another method of oppression, has broad validity for rule-changing manoeuvres of all types.... Christianity, the French Revolution, Marxism, and even psychoanalyses Itself - as a revolution In medicine against the so-called organic tradition - all succumbed to the Inescapable fate of all revolutions - the setting up of new tyrannies.... If we sincerely desire a sclentlflcally respectable psychosoclal theory of man, we shall have to pay far more attention to religious - and perhaps even more to professional - rules and values than has been our custom heretofore." [T.S.Szasz. The Myth of Mental Illness. 1972 P.186-7]
My overall impression from reading the BAC Journal (there are a few beautiful exceptions) is that counselling is dead. There is so much about training, accreditation, models, techniques, about definitions and codes of ethics, and so little about clients and counsellors in communication. Nowhere is there any critical analysis of the function of the rules of the institution and their effect on the aims of counselling, one of which I take to be empowerment of the individual. Counsellors seem to have lost their commitment to the individual and have become committed instead to standards, institutions, and models. Nobody knows the limits of human potential, no-one can provide a methodology of life; let's stop prevaricating and defending ourselves, and face the void of ignorance within us as we encounter another human being. I cannot be dispassionate and nor can you. If we care about another, that is passion. It must be expressed as it is felt - with fear and humility, with anger and love. Because I care about you, I am moved to anger and despair when I see you sleepwalking into a jungle of institutional bureaucracy which is diverting, perverting, and strangling the life out of you.
There is so much to talk about, I don't know where to begin. I am a white man, living in a white supremacist, patriarchal society. What can I say about empowerment? Here's what a black woman has to say:-
"Why is it so difficult for many white folks to understand that racism Is oppressive not because white folks have prejudicial feelings about blacks, (they could have such feelings and leave us alone) but because It Is a system that promotes domination and subjugation. The prejudicial feelings some blacks may express about whites are In no way linked to a system of domination that affords us any power to coercively control the lives and well-being of white folks." [bell hooks. Black Looks: race and representation. 1992]
The ending of oppression is to be achieved, not by the setting up of alternative (black?) systems of domination, but by exposing the rhetoric of power which 'justifies' oppression. I met a black man the other day, he was selling insurance. "I was brought up white; I feel white." he said; and later, "You can't know what it is like to be black." I cannot tell him that I treat him just the same, I never say that to white men. I feel the gulf between us of our skins and our society, and it hurts. I can cry about that and cry about his uncried tears - years of tears - a lovely, lonely, friendly man. Spare him your psychological analysis for a moment, and instead consider what feeling white feels like. Do white people feel white? My partner was 'brought up white'. Before I met her, I did not distinguish feeling white from feeling human - they were the same thing. Now I am finding that feeling white, being white, is an uncomfortable, shameful feeling, it seems to mark me as an oppressor.
An acquaintance of my partner has a diploma in counselling. She's probably a member of the BAC, I don't know, but anyway, she has done the Group Counselling course and read the Corey book. "Oh let me touch your hair," she said to my partner, "Oh its lovely and soft, I love African hair." I am reminded of those TV programmes where somebody dares to touch a snake. "Oh its dry and smooth!" they say in surprise. It might be interesting to a white person to wonder what it is like to live in a society where almost everyone has a deep, irrational fear of you which they deny, so that they constantly have to reassure themselves that they 'treat everyone the same'.
For most of us white folks the fear is still unacknowledged and projected onto black people, which is why we put so many of them in prison or mental health wards. It may be possible to overcome the barrier of race - I do not wish to deny the possibility of inter-race counselling - but it cannot be done by denial and projection. Race is fundamentally a white problem, it is not out there but in here. I notice that the BAC has d special section for those who cannot address race issues; why not be open and call it the white section?
I feel like the little boy saying, "The emperor has no clothes." Will anyone else take up the cry? And what happens after? Does the emperor put on clothes, or does everybody take their clothes off, or is there a change of government? You see, in spite of her diploma, my partner's acquaintance is a menace to black people - she thinks that she loves them, and they might believe it too. All the training and certification and accreditation in the world cannot protect one from the risk of doing harm to clients. On the contrary, by giving the illusion of guaranteed competence and adequacy, it increases the risk that one will fail to see the harm that one is doing.
My partner has a black therapist to help her with stress following harassment by white professionals. Now that I have offered to you some of my own confusion and exposed some of my weakness, what kind of counselling would you recommend for me? What core model will suit the case, and what colour or race of counsellor would be the best? I will finish with that essay on Gerald Corey's book that I mentioned, but first a couple of quotations from my own favourite counsellor, J.Krishnamurti.
You can't listen with opinions; you might Just as well be dead. (J.Krishnamurti & Dr. David Bohm. The Ending of Time. 1985 P.228)
I am asking you, is it a shock to discover that your brain, and your mind, your knowledge, are valueless? All your examinations, all your struggles, all the things that you have gathered through years and years, centuries, are absolutely worthless? Do you go mad, because you say you have done all this for nothing? Virtue, abstinence, control, everything -and at the end of it, you say they are valueless! Do you understand what this does to you? (ibid. P.105)
Racist Counseling. A review of "Theory and Practice of Group Counseling 4th. edition." by Gerald Corey."There is a high dropout rate for ethnic minority clients: as many as 52% of them terminate counseling after the first session (Mokuau 1987). One explanation for this obvious dissatisfaction with professional counseling is that these clients quickly make the assessment that they will not get the help they are looking for from the counseling relationship." [Corey p.287]
Gerald Corey is talking here of the Person centred approach. He has clearly given a lot of thought to issues of race and culture. He strongly favours a multi-cultural approach to councelling and discusses in some detail the problems, advantages and professional implications for theory and practice. He is concerned that the needs of ethnic minorities are not always met, and has much of interest to say on the subject of cultural difference and core values. He has almost no insight, however, into the effects of the status of different cultures.
"This path [multlculturalism] provides a picture of this society as a cultural mosaic rathier than a melting pot. It offers a basis for helpers to develop new structures, paradigms, policies and practices that are responsive to all groups in society." [Corey p.18]
The mosaic image is a telling one. A mosaic consists of coloured fragments embedded in a white cement. It is the ever present, ever dominant white western culture that holds, defines, separates, deliniates and controls the multi-cultural mosaic pieces, and it is colour that distinguishes them. Compare this with the Rainbow Nation image of the new South Africa. There is no pure white, no separation, and no domination of one colour. Cultural variation is pictured as a natural phenomenon; a spectrum which does not contain boundaries.
"Practitioners writing about multicultural counseling often assert that many counselling approaches fail to meet the complex needs of various ethnic and minority clients because of stereotyped narrow perceptions of those needs. Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanlcs, Native Americans and members of other minority groups leave counseling significantly earlier than do Euro-Amerlcan clients. This tendency is often caused by cultural barriers....." [Corey p.19]
Here we can clearly see the sorting of the mosaic pieces by visual (racial) characteristics and especially by skin colour. From a European perspective it seems strange that Irish and German cultures for example are not distinguished/ while Hispanics seem to have been ejected from Europe altogether, presumably because of their darker complexions. One strongly suspects that Arabs are likewise barred from Africa and sent to join Asia/ the land of "other" religions and "other" complexions. Gerald Corey claims to be talking about culture and ethnicity, but the groups which he specifies are racial and not cultural. Notice too, the way that "Euro" is punctuationally linked to "American", unconsciously signalling a special relationship denied to other groups. Again, it is clear that "Euro-American" behaviour is the standard against which all other groups are measured and from which they deviate. Mr Corey goes on to locate the cultural barriers within the minority groups, but it is possible to turn the whole question around…
Let us consider why it is that Euro-Americans - and what is meant here is strictly white Americans, visibly mixed race Americans are involuntarily assigned to the "inferior race" -why do whites, then, remain in counselling significantly longer than everyone else? Maybe white culture is inherently more damaging to the individual than other cultures; maybe their fundamental belief in their own superiority leads them to suppose that their own problems are more significant; perhaps our culture's responsibility for the Holocaust/for the murder and enslavement of millions of Africans and the destruction of their culture, for global pollution and global warming, etc. etc. leads to particular problems with guilt and shame; perhaps we are psychologically a weaker race; or maybe white counsellors are less able to challenge white clients effectively.
This is in no way presented as a definitive analysis but simply as an example of how easy it is to transfer the "barriers" from one culture to another or even, Rogers forbid, to the counsellors themselves.
All this talk of cultural differences serves mainly to obscure and deny the reality of racial oppression. Take for example the case of African Americans. The vast majority of African Americans are descended from slaves. Their traditions, their history, their languages, their tribal origins, their freedom, their names, their very humanity were deliberately taken from them. Their history begins with slavery and their culture is the culture of the oppressed. Their continuing rejection by white society has led to the formation of a culture which is at once part of, and a reaction to, the racist, exploitative and abusive culture of western civilisation. Debarred by whites from assimilation, the heroic search for African roots becomes a psychological necessity.
The core value system of the dominant American culture is expressed in the American Dream of the self made man. Social mobility allows the individual to rise by his own efforts to the heights of society. Corey identifies freedom, responsibility and achievement as the core values of western models.
"....self-contained, individualism helps sustain the core values and institutions that represent North American society today."[Corey p.21]
British society used to operate with ideas of class and station, which moderated and limited these core values. Freedom and responsibility were exercised within the boundaries of one's given position in society which one was not expected to transcend. Having "ideas above one's station" was not encouraged. This is replaced in America with the "self-evident" equality of all men. The individual is thus responsible for his social and economic status as well as the general conduct of his life. Let us be clear here, equality is not regarded as an ideal towards which we should strive, requiring the privileged to make sacrifices so that equal opportunity can become a reality. It is declared to be already true. No redistribution of wealth is required; the poor and deprived are by definition responsible for their plight, because we are all equal. Wealth and status are thus made identical with high morality.
This is a very comforting delusional system for Euro-American professors and for privileged people everywhere, and a great deal of effort is put into maintaining it. Multiculturalism is one way of "explaining" why ethnic and racial minorities remain ghettoised and poor:- their values are different.
People whose skin colour and facial features result in their daily experiencing negative discrimination have some difficulty in believing the myth of equality and some even attempt to make it more of a reality. Incredibly though, many of them swallow the lie and some of these dutifully go along to counselling sessions to learn to be more responsible and raise their self-esteem.
I have tried in this essay to write a reasoned academic analysis of my dissatisfaction with this book. It is far from exhaustive, but I confess I am quite pleased with my effort. Last night I read some pages by Carl Rogers, and now I want to finish in a more personal way.
I am privileged, as a white man, to live with a highly sensitive and insightful woman of mixed race. My partner has helped me to see that the life-experiences of black people are radically different to those of whites. The other day, she went to buy some trousers for her daughter. An assistant rushed up and fussed round, insisting that only one person was allowed in the changing room and keeping a close watch on everything. A white woman and her daughter were freely allowed into the changing room together and were left in peace to choose their clothes. Clearly, the assistant thought that my partner might try to steal, and she felt obliged to explain and reassure at each stage; "I'm putting these two pairs back now because they are too small, and taking these three others to try on, then we will decide which ones to buy." A simple, everyday transaction becomes a drama, a mutual problem and a source of stress, and the apparent cause is my partner herself. Any suggestion of discrimination would have been dismissed as paranoia.
This kind of incident occurs every time my partner goes out, but whenever she tries to draw attention to it, she is met with denial. "We treat everyone the same." and "There's no racism here." have become familiar refrains to us. It is so depressing, when one has a problem with one's daughter being racially and culturally isolated at school, to be told by child guidance that it is just like having freckles.
Naively, I thought that counselling would be different. These people will understand, will empathise. This is why I am shocked and angry to find this book doing the very same things; ie. locating the source of the problem in the minority culture, denying the existence of racial prejudice as a major barrier to communication, and completely ignoring the ethnicity of the counsellor while in fact assuming that they are all white. The problems of ethnic minority clients are relegated to a separate section at the end of each chapter the main body of which deals with "normal" people - people like us? What about black counsellors Mr Corey? Do they also need to "... accept the challenge of modifying your strategies to meet the unique needs of special populations."[Corey p.19]? Mr Corey is only talking to "Euro-American" counsellors; he does not see the need for black counsellors. He cannot even bring himself to talk honestly about race and colour, hiding instead behind euphemisms like "Euro-American", "culture", "ethnic minority", etc. How on earth can he expect black people, or native Americans, or anyone for that matter to be open with him?
I thought I had finished there but I am struck by the difference in tone between "Native American" and "native American". The former seems to prioritise ethnicity over nationality; it- emphasises a separatness from other kinds of American (Immigrant Americans?), whereas the latter would seem to allow all Americans a measure of commonality, and I like it more.
Corey, G. (1995) The Theory and Practice of Group Counseling 4th Edition, International Thompson.hooks/ bell. (1992) Black looks: Race and Representation, ISBN 1873262027.Krishnamurti, J. and Bohm, D. (1985) The Ending of Time, New York: HarperCollins.Laing, R. D. (1967) The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, Harmondsworth: Penguin.Rogers/ C. R. (1951) Client-Centered Therapy, London: Constable.Rogers, C. R. (1980) A Way of Being, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Szasz, T. S. (1962) The Myth of Mental Illness, Seeker & Warburg.Wright, R. (1945) Black Boy, reprinted (1998) London: Pan.
Later... I've been grovelling in the html and actualy managed to put the beginnings of an essay list and some links in the sidebar, so I'm feeling like a pretty smug dinosaur. Have a look at 'Black people love us' - you won't know where to put yourself... some of the comments they get are pretty amazing too.
29 Mar 2006
Choice, Suffering and Suffrage.
Do not confuse freedom with choice. I do not choose what to want, and I do not want choice; I want what I want. And what I want is what I do not have; it is wanting in me. To be free is to be free from want and the necessity of choice.
Choice is conflict. If there is no conflict there is no choice, it is already made. Choose between food and poison – there’s no conflict, no choice, no question. Choose between nourishing but dull food and tasty but un-nourishing food and there is a conflict between short term and long term wants. I do not want the conflict, and I do not want this choice, what I want is food that is both nourishing and tasty; that would be freedom.
The inverse of want is fear. I fear losing that which I have or not getting that which I want. Fear and want are the basis of all suffering which is not just physical pain, all psychological suffering. So although we do not choose to suffer, we do suffer from choice; choosing is suffering.
The freedom of the creative process, painting for example, is nothing to do with choice. The artist does not choose this colour over that colour, he simply tries to find the right colour, freely responding to what he sees before him and in his imagination. He is absorbed in his work; neither wanting nor choosing, seeking visual contentment from moment to moment. If he chooses, say, what to paint, then he suffers from the conflict, and many artists suffer, but they suffer from the conflicts of choice, not from the creative act.
It would be a mistake to think that one can choose not to choose; fortunately this is a choice one does not have to make. But there is no need to go looking for ever-more choices, which bring ever-more suffering. Democracy is not good government, democracy is the choosing we have to suffer to get something approaching good government; if we could have good government without all that fuss, well there’d be no choice, would there? To promote choice is to promote suffering, and there should be a better reason for doing it than merely to sell a few more packets of crisps, of any flavour.
28 Mar 2006
27 Mar 2006
26 Mar 2006
Last I heard he didn’t want to say anything as he wasn’t sure if he had been rational or foolish. I don’t want to pre-empt him, but this seems a pretty sensible question to ask oneself in the circumstances. Philosophically it’s difficult, because if I’m not rational, then my judgement is not to be trusted, so once the possibility is raised the question cannot be answered alone. Two psychologists meet on the street: ‘Hi! Your fine, how am I?’
For sure though it is more rational than thinking that freedom can be imposed, or that violence leads to peace. It could be that Norman has been playing ‘aren’t I a good Christian?’ the ego is a tricksy beast, but it could be he is that rarity amongst Christians, a follower of Jesus, cross and all. I’ll give him the benefit of my doubt, because he’s a better man than I… And that reminds me of one of the hotel guests…
After the older guests had settled down for the night, including his parents who were quite frail, he came back down to the bar. I had just come on duty for the night, and someone happened to mention that he had been drinking quite a lot that evening. He had what one might call a repressed stammer; he didn’t repeat syllables, but he seemed to pause open mouthed as if he was stuck on one every now and then. Apart from this he was quite coherent, but he had a haunted look, with deep-set eyes that seemed to look at me from a great distance, or deep under-water. He was younger than me, about forty-ish.
He had been in the US, which he was very scathing about, but had had to come back to look after his parents. He seemed a bit resentful about this. We talked politics and family and sex and religion, and all the while he was steadily drinking vodka and lemonade – doubles. He’d been all over the place, something to do with mobile phone masts; base stations he called them.
He was on his way from Kabul to – I forget where – with an armed escort of Afghans, when they were attacked, and one of the escort had his head blown off right in front of him. A shell had gone right through the vehicle and fortunately exploded some way off, having taken the guy’s head with it. The escort took off into the desert chasing the attackers, leaving him and his companions unsure whether to turn back or carry on to the next town. They decided to go back to Kabul where they reported the death to the local military commander, who was not very interested. ‘Well,’ he said ‘if it had been a European, we’d have had to have an investigation and make a report, but as it’s only an Afghan, you might as well have carried on really.’
He was on his fifth double vodka by now, on top of what he’d had earlier. He was starting to get unsteady and probably wouldn’t remember the conversation next morning. ‘That must be hard to live with.’ I said. ‘It could so easily have been you, and that would have been important; but it was him, and it didn’t matter much.’ There was a long pause. He nodded, and then I said, ‘So now you’re doing your best to blow your own head off with this’ pointing to the glass, ‘to show that’s not important either.’ But I sensed that he was too far-gone now, and not long after, he staggered off to bed. The next night he had gone to his room early- with a bottle. I didn’t see him again – just another statistic in the war on terror, or not even that because North Wales is a long way from the front line, for the moment at least.
24 Mar 2006
It's my last day off, tonight I go back to work so I'm trawling around, looking at what else and who else is out there. It's all a bit random at the moment. People don't seem to leave a lot of comments, and I'm wondering if there are too many writers and not enough readers, sort of chiefs and indians thing. Anyway I've put my current philosophical obsessions up here in case there are any obsessive indians out there. Now I'm just wandering and reading and posting an occasional comment. The lucky people who recieve my gracious outpourings will all flock to this blog to be further inspired by my words of wisdom - that's the idea anyway. Or perhaps you are so lucky, you just came by accident; congratulations!
Here's a question for you, about identity: can you say something about yourself that doesn't at the same time join you to some group and separate you from another group? Example: I am ambidextrous. We ambis are different from all the lefties and righties. (This is politics, right?) (or is it biology?)
Go on, I dare you!
22 Mar 2006
The main thesis of this article is so simple as to be almost trivial, yet if it is true, it will transform our understanding of the foundation of ethics. It is that self-interest is not rational.
I could almost stop there; is it not obvious immediately as soon as one thinks about it? But rational self-interest is the foundation of economics, contractarian theories and perhaps the whole of western liberal democratic capitalism. I must assume that it is not obvious after all and attempt to argue the case.
The Prisoner’s dilemma has a vast and growing literature, and I will assume the reader is familiar with the basic story, which comes from game theory, a branch of mathematics. A situation is defined such that the logic of self-interest leads inexorably to an ‘inefficient’ solution. As far as I am aware though, no one has ever suggested that this constitutes a proof, by reductio ad absurdum, that self-interest is not rational. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy for example, argues thus:
However, inefficiency should not be associated with immorality. A utilityI think this argument is false, and seriously underestimates the power of unselfishness. My understanding of people like Mother Theresa is that they are seeking to do God’s will and not to act in their own interest. Thus they do not identify ‘my poor’ and ‘your poor’ or ‘my good works’ and ‘your good works’ as separate things with separate values. They are indeed ‘different kinds of agents’ whose ordinary (but sadly rare) rationality leads them to the obvious ‘best’ overall solution for the poor in general. The logic of the situation does indeed demand that the agents’ interests are separate and different, and without this separation, the dilemma does not exist; this is the logic of self-interest. If the prisoner’s value each other’s well being equally with their own, there cannot be a separation of interests, and there cannot be a dilemma, ever.
function for a player is supposed to represent everything that player cares
about, which may be anything at all. As we have described the situation of our
prisoners they do indeed care only about their own relative prison sentences,
but there is nothing essential in this. What makes a game an instance of the PD,
is strictly and only its payoff structure. Thus we could have two Mother Theresa
types here, both of whom care little for themselves and wish only to feed
starving children. But suppose the original Mother Theresa wishes to feed the
children of Calcutta while Mother Juanita wishes to feed the children of Bogotá.
And suppose that the international aid agency will maximize its donation if the
two saints nominate the same city, will give the second-highest amount if they
nominate each others' cities, and the lowest amount if they each nominate their
own city. Our saints are in a PD here, though hardly selfish or unconcerned with
the social good.
To return to our prisoners, suppose that, contrary to our
assumptions, they do value each other's well-being as well as their own. In that
case, this must be reflected in their utility functions, and hence in their
payoffs. If their payoff structures are changed, they will no longer be in a PD.
But all this shows is that not every possible situation is a PD; it does not
show that the threat of inefficient outcomes is a special artefact of
selfishness. It is the logic of the prisoners' situation, not their psychology,
that traps them in the inefficient outcome, and if that really is their
situation then they are stuck in it (barring further complications to be
discussed below). Agents who wish to avoid inefficient outcomes are best advised
to prevent certain games from arising; the defender of the possibility of
hyper-rationality is really proposing that they try to dig themselves out of
such games by turning themselves into different kinds of agents.
It is worth noting that this cannot be achieved by identification with a group, as my team, my country, or my poor people; in such a case, the group remains vulnerable to PD situations in the same way as the selfish do-gooder does. Immunity to the PD could thus be seen as the criterion of rational/ethical living.
In order to be in a PD, or any game theory game for that matter, one has to know the score, one’s own and the other prisoner’s utility functions. One must in some sense then acknowledge the other’s agency on a par with one’s own. But then one must take one’s own utility as the overridingly significant one. There does not seem to be any possible rational justification for this. It is so prevalent that one might well be justified in assuming that the other is likely to take this position, but if I am irrational, that doesn’t make it rational for you to be like me.
If the argument I have just sketched out is correct, and self-interest is not rational, there are significant implications for ethics. The gulf between moral and factual statements – between is and ought - becomes far less problematic. ‘If you are hungry, I ought to feed you.’ Has the same structure and significance as ‘If I am hungry, I ought to feed myself.’ The latter is so obvious as to be almost a tautology; ought functions as a commonsense recommendation of the remedy for hunger – ‘Hurrah for food!’ is the meaning of hunger, as much as it is the meaning of ‘I ought to feed…’ and it is the same for anyone’s hunger, not just mine.
Of course I am not suggesting that I and most other people are not generally selfish, simply that our self-interest, however pervasive, is not rational and therefore does not require any ethical counter-argument. But because it is so universal, we take it to be the rational way to behave and then try to find explanations and justifications for everything that does not fit this model of rationality.
The whole enlightenment project, to which our western culture is heir, is founded on the idea of the rational self-interested man, the individual, participating in a social contract for mutual benefit. It has already been pointed out by feminist writers that this image becomes less clear when replaced by a woman, who is likely to be variously attached to and to contain other beings in the form of children. The individuality of the self, the privacy of the body and the mind, begins to break down. Our bodies come out of other bodies which they are part of, and our thoughts are likewise formed from the bones of the ancestors, Shakespeare, Plato, Enid Blyton, etc. Those who wish to maintain the privacy and copyright of their ideas should never read or listen to the thoughts of others; the mind is so terribly absorbent. Yet just this separate individual identity is a prerequisite of self-interest, and hence of any game of game theory.
The whole of ethics is counter-factual, because if ‘what ought to be’ is, there is no problem, and nothing further to be said. In this sense ethics arises from, and depends on, self-interest; if we were not selfish, there would be no need to make rules to forbid it. Because I am selfish, I see the benefits (to myself) of ‘cooperation’, and so the games begin. This is not the cooperation of Mother Theresa, a working together to the same ends, but merely a temporary and provisional mutual exploitation.
Perhaps I need to clarify that when I say that self-interest is irrational, I do not mean that it is irrational to eat when you are hungry, merely that it is irrational to eat all the food when I am hungry too. The awareness of other’s interests, which is the prerequisite of the PD game, is the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the Eden story, the game itself is the wilderness into which we are cast, and our shame is for the nakedness of our greed that is exposed by this knowledge. Ethics, then, is a bit of a fig leaf!
A Theory of Justice (Rawls, J. 1971) is a heroic attempt to embroider a fig leaf large enough to cover the entire western world. It is founded on the rationality of self-interest, and attempts to construct through a thought experiment, a reasoned contractual arrangement that self-interested individuals could come to in a certain idealised situation called ‘the original position’. One of the major requirements of the original position is that although the individuals are assumed to be rationally self interested, they are deprived of all knowledge of what these interests are and also of their position in the society whose rules they are to establish; he refers to this as the veil of ignorance. One might say that he obliges us to set up the rules of the game before we know which side we are on, and sure enough, it turns out that in these circumstances there is a pretty strong emphasis on the rules being fair. The veil of ignorance serves to prevent the operation of the self-interest assumed to exist.
The supposed rationality of self-interest has been exported wholesale to biology where it is tacitly assumed that survival of the selfish holds sway, at least genetically. When pushed, the geneticist will say that of course this is an analogy. Genes that survive tend to be ones that promote their own survival in some way, and this makes them appear as if they are selfish, although they have no self or any agency. On the basis of this ‘as if’, game theory is then applied to evolution, and so to the evolution of the human mind and from there to human groups and cultures.
In Natural Justice, Ken Binmore seeks to place Rawls’ theory of justice on a sound biological basis, and he acknowledges the analogical nature of the selfishness of genes at the outset.
Why, for example do songbirds sing in the early spring? The proximate cause is
long and difficult. This molecule knocked against that molecule. This chemical
reaction is catalysed by that enzyme. But the ultimate cause is that the birds
are signalling territorial claims to each other in order to avoid unnecessary
conflict. They neither know nor care that this behaviour is rational. They just
do what they do. But the net effect of an immensely complicated evolutionary
process is that songbirds behave as though they had rationally chosen to
maximise their fitness.
Binmore, K. (2005). Natural Justice, § 1.4 (his
But two pages further on, ‘A player in the human game of life isn’t some abstract entity called “everybody”. We are all separate individuals, each with our own aims and purposes.’ The as though has vanished. Evolution works by trying everything and seeing what survives, and what survives best will be largely as game theory predicts to the extent that the theory can account for the complexities of the interactions between individuals and their species, and the environment. This latter seems to be somewhat neglected, perhaps because it is too complex for analysis, but on the face of it, the evolution of cooperation with the environment is widespread, and important to long-term survival. Dutch Elm Disease for example has been very successful in recent years, but is unlikely to outlive by long the elm trees that it is destroying. The individual gene does not exist and certainly cannot survive on its own, it is part of a genome that is part of a cell that exists in and is part of an environment. Cooperation is the norm and ‘selfishness’ is bound to be self-defeating.
Somehow the analogy that works to some extent in biology seems far less clear when reapplied to its origin, human minds. My own contention is that it is precisely the possibility of rational thought, as distinct from blind self-interest, that makes us at least potentially different. ‘Our species somehow learned to use culture as a form of collective unconscious or group mind within which to store the fruits of trial-and-error experimentation from the past, and to incorporate new discoveries made by individuals in the present.’ (ibid. § 1.5) This group mind, transcending the individual, is exactly what is missing from other species, preventing them from acting selflessly for the benefit of the species. The group selection fallacy is no fallacy if there is a group mind.
Listen to your mother, Ken; she is speaking with the authority of the group mind. You are not just yourself, except bodily, your mind is part of the group mind and therefore you are everybody. I cannot claim to speak for the group mind of course, but I am aware that my thoughts are an amalgam of cultural influences and personal experience, and that my ideas are entangled with those of Kant and Hume and Mr Binmore, and their thoughts are similarly entangled with others. All of this is the content of consciousness and is particular to each individual. But the nature of consciousness is the same for all of us and therefore not personal.
Kant claimed that a truly rational individual will necessarily observe one
particular categorical imperative: “Act only on the maxim that you would at the
same time will to be a universal law.” My mother had similar views. When I
was naughty, she would say, “Suppose everybody behaved like that?” Even to a
child, the flaws the flaws in this line of reasoning are obvious. It is true
that things would be unpleasant if everybody were naughty, but I’m not everybody
– I’m just myself. (ibid. § 3.2)
I tend to be in conflict with the group mind. Like Ken Binmore I want to maintain that I am just myself, and that principles like ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ are no use to me unless all my neighbours live by the same creed – and even then I might take advantage of their ‘innocence’. But I can see in theory at least, that this separateness is not as real and absolute as it seems, and that from the point of view of consciousness as a whole, love your neighbour is both rational and natural, and my self-interest is an aberration.
It is this conflict between self and consciousness that gives rise to the phenomenon of ethics with its seemingly unnatural and unfounded demands, but since the group mind has evolved, it is futile to attempt to deny the fact and seek to return to a state of animal innocence. The apple has been tasted, and the conflict can only be resolved now in favour of the group mind, because the group mind is not in conflict and the individual mind is. It may be that the experiment will fail, and that we will follow the path of Dutch Elm disease and most species in history towards extinction; the blind watchmaker makes many mistakes. But the existence of the group mind could enable the watchmaker to see a little way down the road of evolution and perhaps make fewer.
The Cook’s dilemma is a situation I have encountered in real life. The Cook picks up a pan of pasta from the stove to take it to the sink and drain it. Only when he has picked it up and started to move, does he realise that the handles are too hot; his hands are being burnt. But if he drops the pot he will certainly scald his legs even more badly, not to mention losing his dinner. Does it make sense to talk about the self-interest of the hands, and the conflicting self-interest of the legs, and the stomach? My experience is that the hands do their best to get the pot safely put down somewhere, and the legs do not reproach the hands for any failing. The mind reproaches itself for not having the foresight to use a cloth, otherwise ‘everybodypart’ cooperates to help the afflicted and minimise the disaster. One does not need a theory of the evolution of cooperation to explain this mystery, in spite of the fact that the hands do not feel the suffering of the legs. There is no need of empathy on the part of the hands for the legs, nor for a sense of duty; these are purely mental affairs. Hands are not selfish because self hood too, is a purely mental affair. Indeed, selfish, independently minded hands would be a great nuisance and surely unlikely to survive long in the gene pool.
‘The pundits and gurus who claim to know the uniquely Good or Right way to do things are just windbags and blowhards; the reality is that we have only our own likes and dislikes to guide us.’ (ibid. § 12.8) This is very true and applies to philosophers, biologists, and game theorists as well. Fortunately, it appears that our likes include things like giving to disaster funds, preserving the environment, and an interest in higher states of consciousness than self-interest. The prisoner’s dilemma is endlessly fascinating because it encapsulates the human condition. Paradise can be seen but selfish selves cannot reach it. Self-interest cannot get there and that is what makes it paradise. The saints are already there; the gurus claim to know the way but they are just windbags – the self cannot get there, not I, nor you, nor them.
If self-interest is not merely irrational, but is the main source of irrationality, justification ceases to be a problem. Rather than a theory of morals, what stands in need of explanation is immorality – why are we immoral and irrational? Why do we spend most of our energy fighting and destroying each other and the world? Why are we so concerned with this nasty little thing called self?
In other contexts, self-interest is known to be a distorting factor. Politicians are required to declare their interests, so that they can be allowed for. Scientists take steps to remove the potential bias of self-interest from their experiments. In fact we all know that self interest is not rational, but it is in our selfish interests to convince ourselves otherwise, because rational is good and true and right, and that’s what I want to be, or to think of myself as being. But my self is precisely that which I think of myself as being; If I think of myself as having rational self-interest, that is what I am. If I come face to face with the fact that I am fundamentally irrational, thought and self can no longer be sustained. There is an ending of self as thought, and therefore of self-interest. This is a psychological death and the beginning of rationality. Thought as self is tricksy though, and will usually convince itself that this has already happened and that now, ‘I’ am rational. This of course, is another delusion, another irrationality.
In the everyday sense, games are founded on pretence. Kittens pretend they are trying to catch a ball of wool; footballers pretend they want to kick the ball between the posts without using their hands. But thought is unable to distinguish between reality and pretence. When I lose a game of chess, it feels as though I have lost something real. The game is over, but I carry on the pretence and take it as real. Indeed so prevalent is this delusion that it enables people to make a real living from playing games. Indeed the economy is itself another game. Let’s pretend, but all the time forever, that we all want to collect these tokens called money, and whether the ball is ‘in’ or ‘out’ in this game of tennis shall determine who gets the most tokens. And this game is called ‘living in the real world’. And indeed one cannot survive in the culture without taking account of the fact that everyone is playing this game and taking it for real. I would like to suggest that there are other things we could do, other games, or no game, but I won’t be throwing my money away just yet, any more than I would start sun bathing in the penalty area during the Cup Final.
In fact a lot of people spend a good deal of their lives doing other kinds of things without any great thought about their self-interest and this is the secret of a contented life. It is also a problem for game theorists and economists because these people are not ‘playing the game’. The only solutions in game theory are that either they have self-interests that have not been accounted for, or they have made some miscalculation. That they are doing something else entirely, without ulterior motive seems to make no sense, not to a rationally self-interested individual.
Sometimes, philosophy is a game of who can beat whom in an argument, a game played for ‘real’ stakes of money and status. Is there, beyond that a desire for truth, a desire to think straight and see straight for its own sake? Desire seems all encompassing at times, but if I eliminate all the game desires that I have pretended to have and then forgotten the pretence, there seems to be very little left, apart from physical comfort, to be not too warm or too cold, to move when I have been still for a while to rest after activity to eat when hungry, some sexual release – the body is quite simple and easily satisfied. Does the mind have its own desire, to be active and busy, is that why we spend our lives playing games?
When a lion chases a deer, it does not think about the feelings of a deer; there is hunger, excitement, speed and strength. But for myself, once I have come to an awareness that the deer has feelings like mine, I can only continue to hunt at the cost of a mental separation – I am not the deer - and the denial of the feelings that I do in fact have for the deer. There is no way back to the innocence of the lion; either I enter the world of a separate self, full of fear and loneliness, or else I am a vegetarian. For the lion, there is no separation. ‘Lion’ is ‘chasing a deer’. My hunting is different: ‘I’ am ‘chasing’ (a frightened deer). I have to separate myself from the fear, and so also from the deer. In the biblical story of the fall, it is sex where this separation is first manifested – they saw that they were naked and were ashamed. It’s the same thing. Once one is aware that the other has feelings, sex is either consensual, or it is rape – there is knowledge of good and evil. And the wages of sin is this psychological separation as a self, and therefore eventually the death of that self.
The secret of happiness is to be unselfish, but when I, a selfish person, hear about this, of course I want this happiness for myself, so I start to practice unselfishness through self denial, or doing good to others, through self flagellation, fasting, meditation, prayer or whatever. It is all to no avail though, because I am still pursuing my separate, selfish ends. For the selfish self, the only end is death, but I would face even that if I could reach this thing – and even my death would be one more selfish act, this is the stupidity of suicide. The road to heaven is always barred to me – and that’s what makes it heaven.
What is ethical is that which does not separate self from other, because from separation comes suffering. Is this not rational? The original position that I wish to propose, is not that I do not know whether I am to be the doctor, the foetus, the mother, or the legislator, but that these are not separate positions at all, but one single identity. I might choose to abort a part of myself, but I would need a really pressing reason to do so, as I would to amputate my own leg. As in fact I am separated, and am not the foetus, the mother or the doctor, I take it to be most ethical not to seek to legislate either.
Binmore, K. (2005a). Natural Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/game-theory/#Bas (section 2.7)