Saturday, March 31, 2012 - Robert Wright (The Evolution of God) and Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind)

On this week's episode of The Wright Show on, Robert Wright speaks with Jonathan Haidt about his new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

These two people are the closest thing we have in the U.S. to public intellectuals who are developmentally oriented in how they view some of the crucial issues diving the country - religion and politics. Both men employ models of cultural evolution that are similar to Clare Graves' biopsychosocial "Emergent, Cyclical, Levels of Existence" model, although neither (to my knowledge) ever clearly defines the structures behind their models.

Graves on "Levels of Existence, Forms of Being"
        "I am not saying in this conception of adult behavior that one style of being, one form of human existence is inevitably and in all circumstances superior to or better than another form of human existence, another style of being. What I am saying is that when one form of being is more congruent with the realities of existence, then it is the better form of living for those realities. And what I am saying is that when one form of existence ceases to be functional for the realities of existence then some other form, either higher or lower in the hierarchy, is the better form of living. I do suggest, however, and this I deeply believe is so, that for the overall welfare of total man's existence in this world, over the long run of time, higher levels are better than lower levels and that the prime good of any society's governing figures should be to promote human movement up the levels of human existence."

        -- Dr. Clare W. Graves

In The Evolution of God, Wright suggests stages of cultural evolution almost identical to Graves, or even to Jean Gebser.
In characterizing the emergent consciousness as arational (as opposed to irrational) and aperspectival, Gebser sought to indicate that it transcended the dualistic, black-or-white categories of the rational orientation to life. Rationalism, for him, was by no means the pinnacle of human existence, but, on the contrary, an evolutionary digression with fatal consequences. He regarded it as a deficient of the inherently balanced mental structure of consciousness. In other words, Gebser did not reject reason, merely its inflation into the sole arbiter of our lives. As he recognized, the human being is a composite of several evolutionary structures of consciousness, and we must live all of them according to their intrinsic value. The individual who is dominated by the rational structure represses all other structures, which are viewed as irrational and hence dispensable. Thus the "reasonable" person is inclined to reject magic, myth, religion, feeling, empathy, and not least ego-transcendence.

One of the downsides for me, in hearing Haidt's views, is that he adheres to the current perspective dominating neuroscience that most of our actions and moral views are preconscious and outside of our rational control. There is considerable evidence for this, but the studies are looking at all people as occupying the same stage of development. However, there is also evidence that people who engage in meditation and mindfulness are more consciously able to examine their beliefs and not simply react from preconscious states.

I'm also a little uneasy with Haidt's assertions around conservative values vs. liberal values and that conservatives are more in-tune with the realities of human needs and values. He tends to reject liberal values almost wholesale, and that feels like an agenda to me.

Anyway, around the 8-9 minute mark, Haidt explains some elements of his cultural development model.

Robert Wright and Jonathan Haidt - The Righteous Mind

Recorded: Mar 29 — Posted: Mar 30
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Ron Krumpos said...

Jonathan Haidt's new book is so broad in its scope that I can only comment on one aspect: the relationship between conscience and morality. He says that political (secular) and religious views of morality frequently divide people. Many of us may have both in intuitive and learned behavior. In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, "the greatest achievement in life," is a chapter called "Duel of the dual." Here are four paragraphs from it:

The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology defines conscience as “a reasonably coherent set of internalized moral principals that provides evaluations of right and wrong with regard to acts either performed or contemplated. Historically, theistic views aligned conscience with the voice of God and hence regarded it as innate. The contemporary view is that the prohibitions and obligations of conscience are learned."

The Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion lists some interesting historical observations on the word. Socrates said that conscience was the inner warning voice of God. Among Stoics it was a divine spark in man. Throughout the Middle Ages, conscience, synderesis in Greek, was universally binding rules of conduct. Religious interpretations later changed in psychiatry.

Sigmund Freud had coined a new term for conscience; he called it “superego.” This was self-imposed standards of behavior we learned from parents and our community, rather than from a divine source. People who transgressed those rules felt guilt. Carl Jung, Freud’s famous contemporary, said that conscience was an archetype of a “collective unconscious”; content from society is learned later. Most religions still view conscience as the foundation of morality.

Perhaps conscience can be viewed as a double-pane window, with the self in between. On one side, it looks toward ego and free will to obey community’s laws. On the other side, it is toward the soul and divine will to follow universal law. They often converge to dictate the same, or a similar, course of conduct…and sometimes not. The moral dilemma is when these two views conflict.

william harryman said...

A couple of clarifications on your comment:

To Freud, superego was not "self-imposed" - most of its rules were introjects from parents and culture, a process that happens when we are very young and pre-rational, a form of enculturation.

Jung was Freud's student - and he did not see conscience as an archetype, but he did see parents (great mother/great father) as both personal and collective archetypes.

What we know from modern developmental theory is that values and morals are instilled in children before children have much say over what they are taught.

However, as we develop we can learn to take our values and morals as objects of consciousness (this requires at least a formal stage of development) and choose what values we hold.

This is Kohlberg's moral development theory in action, although he did not frame it in the same way as someone like Robert Kegan (Harvard) does - Kegan uses the term "self-authoring" to describe the stage when are able to examine our beliefs as objects of awareness.

Ron Krumpos said...

William, we obviously have read different sources and your interpretations are probably more current than what I published in my ebook. I primarily sought to point out the distinctions between intuitive and learned morality.

It would seem that you do not believe in any transcendent moral sense beyond that which we have gained since birth.

william harryman said...

If by "transcendent moral sense" you mean some form of moral absolutes beyond those created by human beings, no, I do not. The idea that there are such absolutes is known as the myth of the given (via Ken Wilber):

"The myth of the given is ... the belief that the world as it appears in my consciousness, as it is given to me, is somehow fundamentally real, foundationally real, and that therefore I can base my worldview upon whatever presents itself to my consciousness. For example, I might see a rock in front of me; I take that as real. I have an experience of anger; I take that as real. But the whole point is that what our awareness delivers to us is set in cultural contexts and many other kinds of contexts that cause an interpretation and a construction of our perceptions before they even reach our awareness. So what we call real or what we think of as given is actually constructed—it's part of a worldview."

Wilber's point, based on the philosophy of Wilfrid Sellars, is that there are authentic spiritual experiences (of god, or satori, or nonduality), but they are culturally molded. We are at all times, culturally and environmentally embedded beings, and the context of our experience defines it. A spiritual experience to a Catholic Saint might involve angels and divine beings, but the Tibetan monk may see the goddess Avalokitesvara with ten thousand arms appearing in her dreams, which she experiences as the image of god.

"And if somebody's taking their spiritual experience and saying, “This is universally true,” they're lying. It's culturally created and molded, yet it doesn't look like that to the person having the experience. So they're caught in one version of the myth of the given. A scientist is caught in the same thing. If a scientific materialist says, “Anything I can see in the sensori-motor world is real because that's what's really given,” he or she is also caught. It isn't given; it's constructed. Anytime we take a state or a stage or a structure or a level of our own consciousness and assume that what's given to it is real, we're caught in the myth of the given."

So, no, there are no moral or spiritual absolutes - no "transcendent moral sense" in my perspectives.

Ron Krumpos said...

William, I am familiar with that comment by Wilbur and two of his books are in my bibliography. I conduct an email forum for professors who teach mysticism at universities on six continents. Here is one topic:

Disputes between perennialists (essentialists) and contextualists (constructivists) divide some scholars of mysticism. That is unfortunate. Mysticism is already opposed by many within religions and those who are not religious.

One compromise in my ebook on comparative mysticism: "... mystics' consciousness in divine oneness, which may be considered the same eternal event viewed from various historical, cultural and personal perspectives, has occurred with different frequencies, degrees of realization and durations. This might help to explain the diversity in the expressions or reports of that spiritual awareness. What is seen is the same; it is the 'seeing' which differs." That applies to each mystic as well as between mystics.

I tried to summarize it for a general reader interested in mysticism: "Whether mystical experiences vary in cultural contexts, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one's sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on life."

The 56 responses were almost equally divided among the essentialist and contextualist positions.