Saturday, March 16, 2013

Cindy Wigglesworth - Empathy Precedes Compassion

This is cool column from Huffington Post by integrally-informed leadership coach and corporate consultant, Cindy Wigglesworth. She is the author of  SQ 21: The Twenty-One Skills of Spiritual Intelligence.

In this article she addresses the need for empathy (to feel into what others feel) in order to develop compassion. She presents an interesting developmental hierarchy from apathy to sympathy to empathy to compassion.

Empathy Precedes Compassion

Posted: 03/06/2013

Cindy Wigglesworth - Author of SQ 21: The Twenty-One Skills of Spiritual Intelligence, Leadership Coach and Corporate Consultant

There are lots of reasons we might not want to have empathy or "feel with" another person. Here are a few I have heard myself thinking. Do you think anything like this? 
  • This person deserves his hard times -- he has been acting like a jerk! Why should I engage with his pain?
  • Here she goes again. If I show empathy she will just sing the "victim song" even longer.
  • I don't have the emotional bandwidth to suffer along with anyone else right now. It just hurts too much.
All of these comments contain some truth. People do often create their own pain. All of us play the "victim" sometimes (some people love the role and do it a lot!). And some days we feel overwhelmed and can barely handle our own lives. And there is such a thing as too much empathy -- a topic I will take up in a future post.
Yet I am committed to living a life aligned with my understanding of spiritual intelligence. I want to behave with wisdom and compassion, while maintaining inner and outer peace, as much of the time as possible. And I believe being able to feel empathy in any situation is a skill I want to have at the ready. I see empathy as a piece of compassion-building. Why?
I use this four-level hierarchy to explain the differences between apathy, sympathy, empathy and compassion.
  1. Apathy = I don't care. You are unimportant to me.
  2. Sympathy = I see you and I am feel sorry about your plight. This can feel like one-up/one-down. The person I "feel sympathy for" may feel pitied -- which doesn't feel good. But this is a step up from apathy. I might donate money or express concern from sympathy.
  3. Empathy = I feel what you feel. This is a peer-to-peer experience. When you are sad, I feel the sadness in my body/mind/heart. This has a genuine caring texture to the person who is suffering. But you might feel like you are riding the emotional rollercoaster of emotions. You and I might feel unsafe and distance ourselves if feeling another's pain becomes too much.
  4. Compassion = I feel what you feel and it doesn't overwhelm my circuits. My wisdom circuits remain active and I modulate my emotional state. I see a larger picture. I act skillfully to relieve suffering where I can, or to sit with people who just need accompaniment in their pain (or their joy).
We may begin with apathy (lack of attention or concern) for someone or something. Then we may learn how to have sympathy for the suffering of others. Empathy moves us to feel with, to suffer with or rejoice with others. From empathy we can build to the next step -- compassion. Compassion is distinguished by its universality (I have compassion for all) and by the lack of panic or fear in it. Empathy at a global level is overwhelming. Compassion is not overwhelming because it is partnered with wisdom. Compassion sees a larger picture.
In my model of spiritual intelligence, and in my own life experience, I see no path to compassion that doesn't take us through empathy first. So I knew early in my research that I really need to understand empathy. Fortunately wonderful research has been and continues to be done in this field.
Empathy is a core emotional intelligence (EQ) skill -- being one of the 18 skills in the Emotional Competence Inventory (ECI 2.0) created by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis. They define it as "sensing others' feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns." It is a crucial skill for developing many of the social skills listed in the ECI fourth quadrant, labeled "Relationship Management" (or "Social Skills"). If you have read my book, you know that I have modeled the SQ four quadrants and 21 skills as a "vertical step up" from the ECI four quadrants and 18 skills. SQ and EQ are tightly connected.
In The Science of Evil: on Empathy and Cruelty (2012), Simon Baron-Cohen explains that neuroscience research has shown that there are quite a few parts of the brain (10 or more) involved in the experience of empathy. He calls these parts of the brain "the empathy circuit." He proposes that the best way to think about evil is to consider that cruelty cannot occur in the face of empathy since empathy acts as a natural brake on hurting others. How can we hurt another if we are causing equal pain to ourselves? It is an interesting hypothesis. One he hopes will be testable.
Baron-Cohen notes that not everyone who has low empathy is cruel. But he suggests we should hold the hypothesis that all people who are evil or cruel are failing to experience empathy, at least at that moment. In other words, cruelty at a minimum requires that our empathy-brakes have failed. He points out that there are many factors that cause us to not have enough empathy. These include malfunctions in any part of the brain's empathy circuit. Questions naturally arise. How much is inborn or genetic? How much is developmental -- e.g., trauma in childhood at key moments of brain development? How much is social conditioning?
There are external situations that can shut down our empathy, either for the long term or the short term. There is phenomenon labeled "in-group / out-group" dynamics. When we make someone part of an "out-group," we are saying they are not like us -- and we begin to dehumanize them. One group in power dehumanizes and attacks another that is seen as less valuable, less important, and not worthy of our empathy. This is what happens in a genocide. In a lesser form we see it in high schools and middle schools when "jocks," "geeks" or any other group makes another "less than us."
In my next posts I will discuss further the ways we can develop our empathy, what gets in the way of empathy, and how to avoid feeling overwhelmed by empathy when confronted by the pain of the world. Empathy minus the feeling of being overwhelmed moves us in the direction of compassion. It enables us to be a loving force for good in the world.
In the meantime I'd love your comments. What helps you open to empathy? What makes you tend to shut down?
For more by Cindy Wigglesworth, click here.

Eric Storm and Beth Meredith - Beyond Complexity (Integral Leadership Review)

There is a new issue of the Integral Leadership Review online - free as always - and this was the first article that struck me in the table of contents. This is a very introductory level introduction to the integral approach to coping with complexity - the need to develop "transrational capabilities" and "become fluent in a number of relevant processes and frameworks."

To do this, they advocate building a "foundation of diverse competences and a transpersonal perspective" so that "we can open up to reality and engage in transrational ways of knowing that take us beyond complexity."

I would argue - and perhaps I will do so more completely in a future article - that we cannot go beyond complexity. Rather, we need to develop the skills to approach complexity with a multiperspectival awareness and learn to meet complexity on its own terms.

When we begin to grasp complex situations, we discover that complexity is not chaos, but has its own internal organizational structures that can be apprehended and worked with directly.

Beyond Complexity

Download article as PDF

Eric Storm and Beth Meredith

It is common wisdom that leaders today must grapple with increasing amounts of complexity. This seems inevitable given our access to ever more information and our expanding awareness of and the connections between psychological, social, organizational, and technological factors. This is particularly true for integral leaders who are actively developing their mental models and related practices. As our cognitive complexity develops so too does our ability to perceive greater complexity. In other words our complexity is becoming ever more complex.

To address this phenomenon, integral theorists have stretched for increasingly sophisticated meta-frameworks in order to capture additional layers of reality. This approach has led to many insights and contributed to our expanding awareness. However this type of extensive analysis requires significant time and effort to produce, and often requires equally demanding resources to apply. This level of investigation also runs the risk of increasing the complexity such that it is no longer clarifying but is at times overwhelming, inhibiting our ability to perceive, analyze, and act.

What is an integral leader to do when faced with a complicated decision but limited time and resources for thorough study? How does an integral consultant help a client avoid the overwhelm of complex analysis? One common strategy for dealing with complexity is to simplify. We squint our eyes and select what we perceive as the critical factors from the heaps of data. By choosing to emphasize some parts we can then set aside others, prioritizing for manageability. The disadvantages of this type of reduction are obvious: there is a risk of loosing important information and understandings, and reducing the quality of the outcome in the process.

While simplifying is often a practical necessity, ideally we want a way to consider all of the significant information and benefit from the richness of complexity while overcoming the time and resource burdens of detailed analysis. Fortunately it appears there is a third way of grappling with masses of information, a way that goesbeyond complexity. This third way comes about through a transcend and include process by which we can incorporate the complexity through both rational and intuitive means and arrive at a new level of understanding without the mental effort of consciously juggling a million data points simultaneously. In this paper we will describe what we see as the precursors and transpersonal foundation for this process, and our own experience working this way.

Many theorists have described transpersonal levels of awareness in their models of consciousness development. Jean Gebser, Jane Loevinger, William Torbert, Robert Kegan, Susanne Cook-Greuter, Clare Graves, Don Beck, Chris Cowan, and Ken Wilber varyingly describe these transpersonal stages as Magician, Alchemist, Synergist, second tier, yellow, teal, and integral. These theorists and others have also identified transrational ways of knowing that are accessible at transpersonal stages of development. These involve a very conscious use of intuitive modalities interwoven with rational thinking and frameworks.

In his thesis on sustainability leaders who hold post-conventional consciousness Barrett Brown identifies fifteen competencies “to help cultivate leaders who can handle complex global issues” (209). One such competency is “ways of knowing other than rational analysis to harvest profound insights and make rapid decisions” (Brown 212). Similarly, in their book on leadership skills for dealing with change, Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs describe the benefits of developing “synergistic intuitions” to “resolve apparently irreconcilable conflicts” (243).

We can find the precursors to these transrational ways of knowing in things we all do every day. These alternative ways of knowing are familiar to many of us and help us handle complexity more effectively. For example most of us have had the experience of suddenly noticing that we have driven for miles with no memory of having navigated the intricacies of the road. What had once required a lot of conscious effort checking mirrors, speed, and traffic over time has become a largely unconscious process. This ability to relinquish our awareness of some things, like the mechanics of driving, to our unconscious allows us to manage even greater complexity, like listening to the radio or talking with someone – up to a point!

At other times we may choose for our awareness of the complexity to remain conscious and to inform our decision making. Such is the case when we are in a flow stateand are fully present and positively engaged on a deep level with the task at hand. Yet we manage to do this without much effort and our actions feel automatic and appropriate. We are able to enter the zone and feel the ease of being at one with events as they unfold.

Another common experience of functioning outside of rational analysis is the aha experience when we suddenly have an insight or realize the solution to a problem while doing something unrelated such as taking a shower or waking from sleep. These flashes of understanding arise after we have spent time with the complexity of the issue but are currently not making an effort or focused on it. The aha experience arises from and reflects our understanding of the intricacies of an issue, but in a way that offers a newly crystallized comprehension.

Finally, there is what is known as soft focus or soft eyes, when we are able to better perceive the whole by being generally aware and not too keenly focused on any one thing. This enables us to perceive a situation on many levels simultaneously including noticing things that might initially appear as anomalies or insignificant. With a soft focus we are able to perceive the whole in all its complexity, and as necessary shift focus to elements we deem significant.

The examples above are alternative ways of knowing that are commonly, if not frequently, experienced. At transpersonal stages of development we can build upon these capacities along with our rational understandings to arrive at transrational capacities to go beyond complexity. Through this transcend and include process we become able to engage with complexity with the efficiency described in the driving example, the power and consciousness of a flow state, the quick synthesis of the aha experience, and the awareness of the whole of soft focus.

In their respective dissertations, both Barrett Brown and Jonathan Reams posit that it is possible to cultivate these transrational capacities in leaders to go beyond complexity. In fact, one purpose of Reams’ study was “to develop a curriculum to facilitate the development of these qualities and characteristics” (8).

To build the foundation for these transrational capabilities it is important to first become fluent in a number of relevant processes and frameworks. As in the driving example, we first need to know how to change lanes, pass another vehicle, and judge merging speeds. This type of knowledge and skill building expands our ability to perceive and process information. We need this level of fluency in order to comprehend what we perceive through transrational processes and to rationally evaluate and discuss these new understandings with others.

Our foundation is further strengthened as we make the subject-object shift from identifying with our personality to observing it. As we are able to see our selves and to see all of our assumptions, values, shadows, blind spots, etc., we take a significant step into the transpersonal realm. In our position as observer we begin to have more control over our reactions and behavior. When we no longer identify with our mental models, we can shift from our own perspective to comprehending the world from a variety of other lenses. We become capable of stepping outside ourselves and inhabiting a kind of openness that is essential for transrational ways of knowing.

In his book Power vs Force, David Hawkins observes, “A mind which is being watched becomes more humble and begins to relinquish its claims to omniscience … and increasingly [we are] less the victim of the mind and more its master. From thinking that we ‘are’ our minds, we begin to see that we have minds … Eventually we may arrive at the insight that all our thoughts are merely borrowed from the great database of consciousness and were never really our own”(205).

Once we have this foundation of diverse competences and a transpersonal perspective we can open up to reality and engage in transrational ways of knowing that take us beyond complexity.

Lately we, the authors, have been exploring the edges beyond complexity in our work helping our clients address their problems. Increasingly we use transrational methods to search for the underlying sources of the issue, to determine if there is permission and support for change, and to identify the most effective levers for moving forward.

When we consider why our work has evolved in a transrational direction there seem to be several factors. We have worked together for over ten years and now share a wide range of mental models and tools as well as experience applying them. It happens that one of us is more analytical and the other more empathetic by nature. Our differing styles together give us a stereoscopic view of our clients and their issues. We have come to value each other’s perceptions and to trust each other in the moment, not unlike improvisation where we build upon what the other puts forward. In the moment we often feel in touch with something that is beyond either one of us.

The more analytical of us has reached a point of being able to accumulate way more information, perspectives, and processes than he can reasonably apply at any given moment. Out of necessity, and now preference, he has found himself increasingly relying on transrational ways of knowing. A combination of exposure to somatic and intuitive practices and a growing body of personal experiences in which he had to respond to clients in a matter of minutes has led to his growing comfort with his transrational process. While he does at times revisit the issue through the lens of various models to glean additional insights, he now finds using transrational ways of perceiving and knowing easier and more effective in many situations.

The more empathetic of us developed her intuition early in life as a way to navigate complexity and to focus on what is most critical and relevant. She has learned to analyze her perceptions retroactively in order to communicate in information-based contexts and as a way to hone the accuracy of her perceptions. The more she has access to a transpersonal perspective, the clearer her perceptions have become, less clouded by personal agenda or blind spots.

In practice we begin by quieting our minds, becoming present and open to what is happening. Our intent is to be in service to what wants to emerge, and we try to hold no agenda beyond that – even to the point of not needing to fix things or find an answer. We begin by asking the client a general question such as “What’s going on?” or “What’s working and what’s not?”

As the client begins speaking we shift into soft focus. We let the data wash over and we seek to attune with the client and the moment, seeing through their eyes as well as sensing shifts in their body language and emotions.

Almost immediately we are also informed by our mental models including our personal judgments, preferences, etc. We seek to hold all of these as so many lenses of perception. We may temporarily adopt a hypotheses or framework and check to see if it opens up some additional information or thoughts. We shift somewhat effortlessly between our theories, our personal thoughts and reactions, and our observations of what is happening. It is very important that at the center of all this we hold a place of not-knowing. From here we can return to a state of soft focus, blurring the boundaries between subject and object, and staying open to what is, our intuition, and emerging understandings.

Joiner and Josephs describe a similar process of “surrendering to a direct experience of the impasse, the ‘not-knowing,’ where feelings oppose each other and nothing seems possible. Attending to this experience in a conscious, patient, and caring way liberates energy and opens the way for new, synergistic possibilities” (Joiner, Josephs 185).

We have realized that the more we trust our process the better it works. Eventually something begins to take shape out of our conversation with the client. It may emerge as a whole, or it may take shape more slowly revealing itself in bits and pieces. In some cases what emerges is very familiar to us, and in others it is a notion outside our usual understanding. It may arise as a general concept, or as a series of quite specific and detailed thoughts. In any case, we recognize it because it resonates with a solidity and firmness we associate with truth and as something that is relevant, a priority, or a useful entry or leverage point. We test out our perceptions and refine our sense of this truth with one another and the client through a series of questions and statements.

Through out this process the client is a co-creator in the experience, though with varying degrees of awareness about the mechanics of what is happening. For the most part it appears to them as if we are having a conversation, a conversation in which they are initially doing a lot of the talking. Eventually as we get clearer on what is emerging, the conversation begins to turn. Sometimes this occurs as a shift and other times as a leap. What is still surprising to us is how easily this occurs with no overt discussion or agreement by any of us. We may voice an insight or simply allow it to inform what we say. The more we are able to align our comments and actions with what is emerging and where the client is in the moment, the more they are able to share the new insights and understanding. Often it feels like our collective understanding is opening a flow of energy like a tiny acupuncture needle in just the right place.

This is the place we call beyond complexity.

Later if the situation allows, we may engage with our client or ourselves in a more rational and thorough analysis. However we do so from the perspective of knowing what lies beyond the complexity which makes the task much easier as we come from a place of knowing. This after-the-fact checking also helps us to hone our process and reflect on our role in it. What we are finding is that the process works best the more self aware we are of our own assumptions, preferences, and expectations and the more open we are to what emerges.

Learning to work this way has greatly helped us with our clients who are frequently organizational, business, and community leaders facing the typical issues of overwhelm and analysis paralysis. Even though intuitive processes are frequently dismissed in conventional settings as woo-woo, we find the outwardly unremarkable nature of this practice along with its relative speed and effectiveness help to side step most objections. Also while a transpersonal foundation seems to be necessary to consciously use transrational processes, our experience is that the fruits of this process appear to be meaningful and useful when shared with people at varying levels of awareness.

We believe these transrational ways of knowing will become increasingly common as a natural outgrowth of transpersonal consciousness. We can imagine these transrational processes beginning to take their place along side financial statements, organizational charts, and other tools of leadership, decision making, and organizational development. There is much to be explored and documented in terms of how to develop these abilities, how to apply them, and what their limitations are. We are excited by the possibilities and the potential as integral leaders and practioners share their insights and understandings of going beyond complexity.


Brown, Barrett (2011), Conscious Leadership For Sustainability: How Leaders with a Late-Stage Action-Logic Design and Engage in Sustainability Initiatives, Doctoral Dissertation, Fielding Graduate University, Retrieved January 12, 2013,

Hawkins, David (1995), Power vs. Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior, Sedona: Veritas. Retrieved January 12, 2013,

Joiner, Bill & Josephs, Stephen (2007), Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Reams, Jonathan (2002), The Consciousness of Transpersonal Leadership, Doctoral Dissertation, Gonzaga University, Retrieved January 12, 2013,

About the Authors

Eric Storm and Beth Meredith run Create The Good Life which promotes personal and organizational change through building awareness, designing for well being, and creating sustainable practices. Eric has a background in fine art, education, sustainability, and green building. He has worked in Japan and in the U.S. leading cross-cultural education programs. Beth’s background is in social psychology, art, architecture and design. She also has an M.A. is Policy Studies from the Monterey Institute of International Studies and has designed and led educational programs internationally and in the U.S. In addition they have trained in Permaculture Design, home energy modeling, mediation, the Enneagram, and Systemic Constellation. Beth and Eric now live slowly in Petaluma, California, where they create the good life for themselves and others. Email:

Steve Sisgold: Whole Body Intelligence - Authors at Google

Steve Sisgold is the author of What's Your Body Telling You? Listening To Your Body's Signals to Stop Anxiety, Erase Self-Doubt and Achieve True Wellness and is a body-centered psychotherapist, who also blogs at Psychology Today (Life in a Body).

Steve Sisgold: Whole Body Intelligence: Staying Resilient, Engaged, and on Purpose . . . No Matter What

Published on Mar 15, 2013

Join author, speaker and body-centered therapist Steve Sisgold for a lively, interactive session on how to access and listen to your whole body's intelligence to energize innovative thinking, enhance well-being and boost performance.

Steve uses humor, exercises, and storytelling to create a transformative environment for:
  • Learning how to Reboot and produce energy vs. stress
  • Identifying limiting patterns, beliefs and habits.
  • Communicating more authentically and powerfully.
  • Igniting purpose & vision- Great for starting the new year for 2013

About the Author
Steve applied the principles he teaches, in the business world. He was #1 of 500 salespeople with a Fortune 500 Corp, plus a breakthrough 
coach to a wide range of people and organizations including many best-selling self help authors, Grammy and Oscar-award winners, a major league baseball GM, and business leaders. He has appeared on major radio and TV shows including PBS, Oprah, and Montel and blogs for Psychology Today.

His book, What's Your Body Telling You? Listening To Your Body's Signals to Stop Anxiety, Erase Self-Doubt and Achieve True Wellness from McGraw-Hill , launched at number 7 on the S.F Chronicle Bestseller List and # 1 on in several categories.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Paul Horwich - Was Wittgenstein Right?

Following up on the previous post, a film biography of Wittgenstein by Derek Jarman, this article by Paul Horwich at the New York Times philosophy column, The Stone, looks at Wittgenstein's conception of the essential problems of philosophy, and his claims that,
there are no realms of phenomena whose study is the special business of a philosopher, and about which he or she should devise profound a priori theories and sophisticated supporting arguments. There are no startling discoveries to be made of facts, not open to the methods of science, yet accessible “from the armchair” through some blend of intuition, pure reason and conceptual analysis. Indeed the whole idea of a subject that could yield such results is based on confusion and wishful thinking. 
This attitude is in stark opposition to the traditional view, which continues to prevail. Philosophy is respected, even exalted, for its promise to provide fundamental insights into the human condition and the ultimate character of the universe, leading to vital conclusions about how we are to arrange our lives. It’s taken for granted that there is deep understanding to be obtained of the nature of consciousness, of how knowledge of the external world is possible, of whether our decisions can be truly free, of the structure of any just society, and so on — and that philosophy’s job is to provide such understanding.
These are not popular views - and Wittgenstein has definitely fallen out of favor, despite having been named in one poll as the most important philosopher of the 20th Century.

NOTE: A response to this post by Michael P. Lynch, Of Flies and Philosophers: Wittgenstein and Philosophy, was published in The Stone later that week.

Was Wittgenstein Right?

March 3, 2013

The singular achievement of the controversial early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was to have discerned the true nature of Western philosophy — what is special about its problems, where they come from, how they should and should not be addressed, and what can and cannot be accomplished by grappling with them. The uniquely insightful answers provided to these meta-questions are what give his treatments of specific issues within the subject — concerning language, experience, knowledge, mathematics, art and religion among them — a power of illumination that cannot be found in the work of others.

Admittedly, few would agree with this rosy assessment — certainly not many professional philosophers. Apart from a small and ignored clique of hard-core supporters the usual view these days is that his writing is self-indulgently obscure and that behind the catchy slogans there is little of intellectual value. But this dismissal disguises what is pretty clearly the real cause of Wittgenstein’s unpopularity within departments of philosophy: namely, his thoroughgoing rejection of the subject as traditionally and currently practiced; his insistence that it can’t give us the kind of knowledge generally regarded as its raison d’être.

Wittgenstein claims that there are no realms of phenomena whose study is the special business of a philosopher, and about which he or she should devise profound a priori theories and sophisticated supporting arguments. There are no startling discoveries to be made of facts, not open to the methods of science, yet accessible “from the armchair” through some blend of intuition, pure reason and conceptual analysis. Indeed the whole idea of a subject that could yield such results is based on confusion and wishful thinking.

Free Press, Ludwig Wittgenstein

This attitude is in stark opposition to the traditional view, which continues to prevail. Philosophy is respected, even exalted, for its promise to provide fundamental insights into the human condition and the ultimate character of the universe, leading to vital conclusions about how we are to arrange our lives. It’s taken for granted that there is deep understanding to be obtained of the nature of consciousness, of how knowledge of the external world is possible, of whether our decisions can be truly free, of the structure of any just society, and so on — and that philosophy’s job is to provide such understanding. Isn’t that why we are so fascinated by it?

If so, then we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the “philosophy” aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress — by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues. Therefore traditional philosophical theorizing must give way to a painstaking identification of its tempting but misguided presuppositions and an understanding of how we ever came to regard them as legitimate. But in that case, he asks, “[w]here does [our] investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble)” — and answers that “(w)hat we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand.”

Associated Press, Bertrand Russell, one of Wittgenstein’s early teachers, at his home in London in 1962.

Given this extreme pessimism about the potential of philosophy — perhaps tantamount to a denial that there is such a subject — it is hardly surprising that “Wittgenstein” is uttered with a curl of the lip in most philosophical circles. For who likes to be told that his or her life’s work is confused and pointless? Thus, even Bertrand Russell, his early teacher and enthusiastic supporter, was eventually led to complain peevishly that Wittgenstein seems to have “grown tired of serious thinking and invented a doctrine which would make such an activity unnecessary.”

But what is that notorious doctrine, and can it be defended? We might boil it down to four related claims.

The first is that traditional philosophy is scientistic: its primary goals, which are to arrive at simple, general principles, to uncover profound explanations, and to correct naïve opinions, are taken from the sciences. And this is undoubtedly the case.

The second is that the non-empirical (“armchair”) character of philosophical investigation — its focus on conceptual truth — is in tension with those goals. That’s because our concepts exhibit a highly theory-resistant complexity and variability. They evolved, not for the sake of science and its objectives, but rather in order to cater to the interacting contingencies of our nature, our culture, our environment, our communicative needs and our other purposes. As a consequence the commitments defining individual concepts are rarely simple or determinate, and differ dramatically from one concept to another. Moreover, it is not possible (as it is within empirical domains) to accommodate superficial complexity by means of simple principles at a more basic (e.g. microscopic) level.

The third main claim of Wittgenstein’s metaphilosophy — an immediate consequence of the first two — is that traditional philosophy is necessarily pervaded with oversimplification; analogies are unreasonably inflated; exceptions to simple regularities are wrongly dismissed.

Therefore — the fourth claim — a decent approach to the subject must avoid theory-construction and instead be merely “therapeutic,” confined to exposing the irrational assumptions on which theory-oriented investigations are based and the irrational conclusions to which they lead.

Consider, for instance, the paradigmatically philosophical question: “What is truth?”. This provokes perplexity because, on the one hand, it demands an answer of the form, “Truth is such–and-such,” but on the other hand, despite hundreds of years of looking, no acceptable answer of that kind has ever been found. We’ve tried truth as “correspondence with the facts,” as “provability,” as “practical utility,” and as “stable consensus”; but all turned out to be defective in one way or another — either circular or subject to counterexamples. Reactions to this impasse have included a variety of theoretical proposals. Some philosophers have been led to deny that there is such a thing as absolute truth. Some have maintained (insisting on one of the above definitions) that although truth exists, it lacks certain features that are ordinarily attributed to it — for example, that the truth may sometimes be impossible to discover. Some have inferred that truth is intrinsically paradoxical and essentially incomprehensible. And others persist in the attempt to devise a definition that will fit all the intuitive data.

But from Wittgenstein’s perspective each of the first three of these strategies rides roughshod over our fundamental convictions about truth, and the fourth is highly unlikely to succeed. Instead we should begin, he thinks, by recognizing (as mentioned above) that our various concepts play very different roles in our cognitive economy and (correspondingly) are governed by defining principles of very different kinds. Therefore, it was always a mistake to extrapolate from the fact that empirical concepts, such as red or magnetic oralive stand for properties with specifiable underlying natures to the presumption that the notion of truth must stand for some such property as well.

Wittgenstein’s conceptual pluralism positions us to recognize that notion’s idiosyncratic function, and to infer that truth itself will not be reducible to anything more basic. More specifically, we can see that the concept’s function in our cognitive economy is merely to serve as a device of generalization. It enables us to say such things as “Einstein’s last words were true,” and not be stuck with “If Einstein’s last words were that E=mc2, then E=mc2; and if his last words were that nuclear weapons should be banned, then nuclear weapons should be banned; … and so on,” which has the disadvantage of being infinitely long! Similarly we can use it to say: “We should want our beliefs to be true” (instead of struggling with “We should want that if we believe that E=mc2, then E=mc2; and that if we believe … etc.”). We can see, also, that this sort of utility depends upon nothing more than the fact that the attribution of truth to a statement is obviously equivalent to the statement itself — for example, “It’s true that E=mc2” is equivalent to “E=mc2”. Thus possession of the concept of truth appears to consist in an appreciation of that triviality, rather than a mastery of any explicit definition. The traditional search for such an account (or for some other form of reductive analysis) was a wild-goose chase, a pseudo-problem. Truth emerges as exceptionally unprofound and as exceptionally unmysterious.

This example illustrates the key components of Wittgenstein’s metaphilosophy, and suggests how to flesh them out a little further. Philosophical problems typically arise from the clash between the inevitably idiosyncratic features of special-purpose concepts —true, good, object, person, now, necessary — and the scientistically driven insistence upon uniformity. Moreover, the various kinds of theoretical move designed to resolve such conflicts (forms of skepticism, revisionism, mysterianism and conservative systematization) are not only irrational, but unmotivated.The paradoxes to which they respond should instead be resolved merely by coming to appreciate the mistakes of perverse overgeneralization from which they arose. And the fundamental source of this irrationality is scientism.

As Wittgenstein put it in the “The Blue Book”:
Our craving for generality has [as one] source … our preoccupation with the method of science. I mean the method of reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws; and, in mathematics, of unifying the treatment of different topics by using a generalization. Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is “purely descriptive.
These radical ideas are not obviously correct, and may on close scrutiny turn out to be wrong. But they deserve to receive that scrutiny — to be taken much more seriously than they are. Yes, most of us have been interested in philosophy only because of its promise to deliver precisely the sort of theoretical insights that Wittgenstein argues are illusory. But such hopes are no defense against his critique. Besides, if he turns out to be right, satisfaction enough may surely be found in what we still can get — clarity, demystification and truth.

Paul Horwich is a professor of philosophy at New York University. He is the author of several books, including “Reflections on Meaning,” “Truth-Meaning-Reality,” and most recently, “Wittgenstein’s Metaphilosophy.”
The Stone features the writing of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless. The series moderator is Simon Critchley. He teaches philosophy at The New School for Social Research in New York. To contact the editors of The Stone, send an e-mail to Please include “The Stone” in the subject field.

Wittgenstein: Derek Jarman’s Tribute to the Philosopher (1993)

Another interesting piece from Open Culture. All 7 segments of the Derek Jarman film on Wittgenstein are embedded in the video below. For those unfamiliar with Wittgenstein, here is a very brief bio sketch from Wikipedia:
Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (26 April 1889 – 29 April 1951) was an Austrian-British philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language.[1] He was professor in philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1939 until 1947.[2] In his lifetime, he published just one book review, one article, a children's dictionary, and the 75-page Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).[3] In 1999, his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953) was ranked as the most important book of 20th-century philosophy by the Baruch Poll, standing out as "...the one crossover masterpiece in twentieth-century philosophy, appealing across diverse specializations and philosophical orientations".[4] Philosopher Bertrand Russell described him as "the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating".[5]

Wittgenstein: Watch Derek Jarman’s Tribute to the Philosopher, Featuring Tilda Swinton (1993)

March 14th, 2013

When last week we featured Bertrand Russell telling a story about his philosophical disciple Ludwig Wittgenstein, I mentioned in passing a film about the latter by Derek Jarman. An English director known for his unconventional choices of theme, form, and medium, Jarman passed away from AIDS-related illness in 1994, the year after making Blue, an autobiographical film that plays out entirely on a solid, unchanging blue screen. He also released in 1993 a less discussed, seemingly less experimental picture: Wittgenstein. Casting Karl Johnson as the philosopher (with Clancy Chassay as his younger self), frequent collaborator Tilda Swinton as noted aristocrat Lady Ottoline Morrell, and Michael Gough (well known as Batman’s butler Alfred) as Russell, Jarman set about telling Wittgenstein’s life story, all on his own aesthetic terms.

The result comes off as an only slightly less radical cinematic act than Blue. Drawing on his stage background, Jarman reduces Wittgenstein‘s visuals to a bare but bold minimum. Watch the clip up top of Johnson as Wittgenstein lecturing at Cambridge under Russell’s watchful eye, and you’ll see what this means: no backdrops at all; just people, things, thoughts, and language. You can see the entire film in seven segments (one, two, three, four, fivesix, seven), beginning with the first just above. Though far from Jarman’s most famous work, Wittgenstein has been claimed by several film traditions: philosophical, experimental, theatrical, queer, even educational. Yet it has eluded them all, creating for itself an environment of both obvious stage-and-screen make-believe — that black void, those dramatic line deliveries — and the disciplined starkness of reality.

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~ Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

New Book - Body Sense: The Science and Practice of Embodied Self-Awareness

I thought Alan Fogel's The Psychophysiology of Self-Awareness: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Body Sense (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) (2009) was an outstanding book, so I am looking forward to this new book from him, Body Sense: The Science and Practice of Embodied Self-Awareness, due out in April. Below is the info from Norton's page.


Body Sense: The Science and Practice of Embodied Self-Awareness

Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology
Alan Fogel (Author)


The science and practice of feeling our movements, sensations, and emotions.

When we are first born, before we can speak or use language to express ourselves, we use our physical sensations, our “body sense,” to guide us toward what makes us feel safe and fulfilled and away from what makes us feel bad. As we develop into adults, it becomes easy to lose touch with these crucial mind-body communication channels, but they are essential to our ability to navigate social interactions and deal with psychological stress, physical injury, and trauma. Combining a ground-up explanation of the anatomical and neurological sources of embodied self-awareness with practical exercises in touch and movement, Body Sense provides therapists and their clients with the tools to attain mind-body equilibrium and cultivate healthy body sense throughout their lives.


1. Rediscovering the Lost Art of Sensing the Body
2. Feelings from Within: The Emergence of Embodied Self-Awareness
3. Links and Boundaries: Locating Ourselves
4. Out of Touch with Ourselves: Suppression and Absorption
5. Shelter from the Storm: The Effects of Safety and Threat on Embodied Self-Awareness
6. In the Flesh: Moving and Touching
7. Catching Our Breath, Finding Our Voice
8. Coming Home to Ourselves: Restorative Embodied Self-Awareness

Paperback, $23.95
Forthcoming April 2013
ISBN 978-0-393-70866-0
416 pages
Pre-Order from for $19.84, or $11.99 for the Kindle


“Alan Fogel leads us on an informative journey to “rediscover” our body’s ability to feel and maintain awareness of our movements, sensations, and emotions. This innovative book uncovers important components of our biological directive to improve quality of life and explores strategies to satisfy that directive by reconnecting with our bodily selves. Through a greater understanding of "embodied self-awareness," we can counteract the consequences of the common developmental trajectory from an infant state of awareness of our bodily processes to a state of assumed maturity in which, as adults, we are insensitive to bodily feelings.” — Stephen W. Porges, PhD, author of The Polyvagal Theory

“With self-help exercises, case vignettes, neuroscience research, and more, this creative, interactive book provides a sophisticated yet down-to-earth perspective on what Fogel calls “embodied self-awareness.” Readable, wise, lucid, simple and engaging, Body Sense is a timely and valuable contribution to the field.” — Pat Ogden, PhD, Founder/Director of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute

“The field of what has been termed somatic psychology has burgeoned in the past two decades. In Body Sense: The Science and Practice of Embodied Self-Awareness, psychologist and therapeutic body worker Alan Fogel has highlighted the neurophysiological underpinnings of body-based therapy by offering us an accessible but encyclopedic presentation of how the brain and body work together to create self-awareness. He makes a powerful case for therapists to enlist clients’ body state perceptions in order to clear the mental and emotional debris that accompanies trauma. Fogel’s use of science and compelling clinical case studies to illustrate his ideas make this a unique and dynamic contribution to the field.” — Robert Scaer, MD, Author of The Body Bears the Burden, The Trauma Spectrum, and 8 Keys to Brain-Body Balance

“It is a truly revolutionary act to render our vague, instinctual knowledge about the body and self-awareness into something understandable, urgent, and applicable to everyday life. In so doing, Alan Fogel has laid a solid and comprehensive foundation for far-reaching changes in psychotherapy, medicine, and our daily lives.” — Daniel N. Stern, MD, author of The Interpersonal World of the Infant

“[E]ssential for anyone seeking to reconnect their body's needs with their minds and daily routines, relieving some stress in the process.” — Elizabeth McMillan, Journal of the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy

“This book is a rare work in its crossing of two worlds: the intricate, technical world of psychological and biomedical research, with its increasingly sophisticated technologies and languages; and the lived world of becoming mature adults. Alan Fogel succeeds in weaving together these disparate worlds with his lucid writing grounded in his thorough understanding both of the importance of embodied self-awareness in our ordinary lives and the sciences that make sense of that dimension of our being. It is an eminently practical book, providing many clues for how we might expand the benefits of embodiment in negotiating the challenges of our lives and, at the same time, gain a familiarity with the scientific basis for their efficacy, thus counteracting inevitable tendencies toward self-doubt and cynicism.” — Don Hanlon Johnson, PhD, professor of somatics, CIIS and author of Everyday Hopes, Utopian Dreams: Reflections on American Ideals

“Fogel draws widely on multidimensional research...all the while addressing these processes with great understanding and ease. . . . Fogel goes further than understanding the complex neurobiology of the human mind by bringing a wealth of information and understanding to the neurobiology of the body and its interconnectedness with the mind. He skillfully shifts the domain of conversation from processes of the mind/brain to the felt sense of the lived somatic experience.” — Rosen Method International Journal

Clash of the Titans: Noam Chomsky & Michel Foucault Debate Human Nature & Power on Dutch TV, 1971

Foucault on left, Chomsky on right

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, television was not simply a wasteland of brain-numbing stupidity - in this far away land in a far away time, television actually presented intelligent people having intelligent conversations about important topics.

Weird, huh? How un-American.

In this cool find from Open Culture (again), Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault discuss human nature, power, and the ways language and culture might shape who we are as human beings. Now that is "Must See TV."

The first two clips are excerpts, but they have the needed subtitles (unless one is multilingual). The bottom video contains the whole debate, sans subtitles, but one can follow along with the full transcript of the debate, available for free at the link.

Clash of the Titans: Noam Chomsky & Michel Foucault Debate Human Nature & Power on Dutch TV, 1971

March 14th, 2013

Today, we’re revisiting the clash of two intellectual titans, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. In 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, the American linguist and the French theorist/historian of ideas appeared on Dutch TV to debate a fundamental question: Is there such a thing as innate human nature? Or are we shaped by experiences and the power of cultural and social institutions around us? The thinkers answered these questions rather differently, giving viewers a fairly succinct introduction to their basic theories of language, knowledge, power and beyond.

42 years later, you can watch the debate on YouTube in parts or in its entirety. Above you will find two excerpts that show you the highlights, complete with subtitles. Below you can watch the entire debate, from start to finish — though, unfortunately, no subtitles are provided. There is one good workaround, however. You can read a full transcript of the debate online (it’s entirely in English), or purchase a copy in book format.

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Beryl Nelson - Diversity - It's Not Just About Being Fair

Beryl Nelson gained her undergraduate degree in Math at MIT and went on to obtain an MS in Biology at the University of Utah with an NSF Graduate Fellowship. 

In 2009, Mrs Nelson began working for Google in Hyderabad, on the engineering productivity team. It is from there that she was offered her current position at Google Krakow, as an Engineering Manager for one of the teams in websearch.

In addition to her main work, Mrs Nelson has also become interested in the published research on the data on diversity within business and its practical applications.

She has designed and co-presented diversity sessions at Grace Hopper India and Grace Hopper US, at the ACM India conference 2011 and internally within Google.

Diversity - It's Not Just About Being Fair 

Presented by: Beryl Nelson 
Google Tech Talk
March 8, 2013


Why should it matter whether you work in a team in which people all think the same way, or have different life experiences and points of view? And what can you personally do to improve diversity in your organization?

Beryl will open her talk with some of the wealth of research and data available about the value of a diverse team composition in terms of financial results and innovation. However, making a diverse team effective is not simple. The second part of the talk will include data relating to barriers to the effectiveness of diverse teams. One of the most difficult problems to deal with, and to measure, is unconscious bias. Why is it that 52% of Fortune 500 CEOs are over 6 feet tall (182.8 cm), and about a third are over 6 feet 2 inches (187.8 cm)? Imaginative researchers have found statistical methods that can measure unconscious bias and other barriers to effectiveness. People who are aware of these barriers can find ways to overcome them, as Beryl will show with a few examples. Finally, the talk will also focus on recommendations to interested individuals on what they can personally do to improve the diversity of their teams.

A presentation for "Voices - Creating Global Connections" organized by Global Tech Women for International Women's Day March 8, 2013.

The Mirroring Mind: An Espresso-Fueled Interpretation of Douglas Hofstadter’s Groundbreaking Ideas

Another great find from the cool folks at Open Culture.

The Mirroring Mind: An Espresso-Fueled Interpretation of Douglas Hofstadter’s Groundbreaking Ideas

March 13th, 2013

Today, Jason Silva serves up another philosophical espresso shot with The Mirroring Mind, a two-minute video inspired by the ideas explored in Douglas Hofstadter’s influential book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. The film — which you may need to watch twice, ideally after you’ve had your own stiff cup of coffee – offers Silva’s “interpretation of Strange Loops of Self Reference, recursion, and the emergence of consciousness and self-awareness.” Once you’ve got a handle on things, you can watch Silva’s previous films on The Immersive Power of Cinema, The Biological Advantage of Being Awestruck, and The Gospel of Radical Openness.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and now Google Plus and share intelligent media with your friends! They’ll thank you for it.

The Neuroscience of Morality - A Review from The American Interest

In The American Interest, Iain DeWitt reviews four books from the last year or two on the neuroscience of morality. The books under review here are Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality
by Patricia S. Churchland, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind by Robert Kurzban, and Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga.

Notably, he did not include Sam Harris's Free Will, a book that despite its popularity is not in the same league as the four under review. Michael Gazzaniga's Who's in Charge? is a much better book on the topic of free will.

Iain DeWitt is a doctoral candidate in the department of neuroscience at Georgetown University.

From the March/April 2013 issue

Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality
by Patricia S. Churchland
Princeton University Press, 2011, 288 pp., $24.95

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
by Jonathan Haidt
Pantheon Books, 2012, 419 pp., $28.95

Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind
by Robert Kurzban
Princeton University Press, 2011, 288 pp., $27.95

Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain
by Michael S. Gazzaniga
Ecco, 2011, 272 pp., $27.99

In 1690, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke entreated us to consider the mind’s curious “[annexation of] the idea of pain to the motion of a piece of steel dividing our flesh.” Obviously enough, the sensation of pain resembles neither anything in steel nor in its motion. Pain is a sensation of the body, a signal the body’s physical integrity is breached. Locke used this quip to illustrate that perception is not the direct experience of material reality. Rather, external events induce sensations that are a limited interpretation of reality. In 1884,Scientific American asked and answered the famous question, “if a tree were to fall on an uninhabited island, would there be any sound?” In short, no:

Sound is vibration, transmitted to our senses through the mechanism of the ear, and recognized as sound only at our nerve centers. The falling of the tree or any other disturbance will produce vibration of the air. If there be no ears to hear, there will be no sound.1

Absent an observer, sound, per se, does not exist.

That sound is a construct of the organism is also clear from species’ hearing ranges. Dolphins, for instance, hear 150–150,000 Hz oscillations, whereas humans hear in the range of 20–20,000 Hz. We perceive only as much of reality as our mechanisms of transduction, our sensory organs, afford us. The remainder, the un-transduced portion, is lost to oblivion (or to instrumentation). Transduction induces both veridical representation and editorializing on the biological value of events and objects, such as fright at the apprehension of threat. Morality, perhaps counterintuitively, begins with editorialized sensation. To echo Locke, we curiously annex feelings of anger and disgust to the transgressive behavior of others.

In Braintrust, Patricia Churchland, a philosopher at the University of California, San Diego and co-founder of neurophilosophy—the modern incarnation of the philosophy of mind—examines the nature of morality and the biology of sociality. Morality, she offers, is this:

A four-dimensional scheme for social behavior that is shaped by interlocking brain processes: (1) caring (rooted in attachment to kin and kith and care for their well-being), (2) recognition of others’ psychological states (rooted in the benefits of predicting the behavior of others), (3) problem-solving in a social context (e.g., how we should distribute scarce goods, settle land disputes; how we should punish the miscreants), and (4) learning social practices (by positive and negative reinforcement, by imitation, by trial and error, by various kinds of conditioning, and by analogy).

While good, this definition is incomplete. In The Righteous Mind, a book on morality and the evolution of group living, Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at NYU, expresses a similar view but adds that morality curbs short-term self-interest:

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

Still, something is missing. In Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, Robert Kurzban, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, captures the missing element:

One of the most peculiar things about humans is just how much they care about what other humans are up to. In essentially all of the rest of the natural world, unless one organism’s fate is intimately tied to another organism’s decision . . . organisms typically ignore one another. . . . Organisms should be designed . . . to pay attention only to those things that are directly relevant. We’re different. We seem to care a lot about what other humans are up to. And when other people . . . say some particular magical words, or try to sell (or rent) a body part . . . not only do we care, but we insist that they be punished.

Judgment is morality’s essence, sociality its purpose. The integrated thesis is then that a judgmental temperament makes it easier for people to live in larger, denser groups, be they denizens of humanity’s first villages in the Neolithic Levant or present-day Manila with 47,000 inhabitants per square mile.

Omissions aside, Churchland’s definition fits well with evolution and observation. For moral sentiments to have evolved they must enhance survival and fecundity. Their adaptive value is manifest in the influence they exert on social conduct. Moralizing alters risk aversion (trust) and punishment behavior. Game theory tells us each can be adaptive. Trust influences outcomes in Prisoner’s Dilemma scenarios and punishment can reduce free riders in Tragedy-of-the-Commons scenarios. For moralizing to be adaptive, moral sentiments must interface with planning and reasoning circuits. For social reasoning, in turn, to be adaptive, it must possess some theory of mind, succinctly defined as beliefs about others’ beliefs. The centrality of this to morality is illustrated by Common Law: Criminal liability rests on both actus reus, acts that are guilty, and mens rea, thoughts that are guilty. Finally, while moralizing may be innate and hence universal, morality is plastic and hence parochial. As any parent or anthropologist will attest, children are socialized to the mores of their particular culture.

Churchland addresses morality from several perspectives, but her main interest is in the neurobiological foundation of morality. This centers on discussion of oxytocin, a hormone traditionally appreciated for its role in the female reproductive cycle, especially in milk letdown. Beginning in the 1970s, interest grew in this hormone as a regulator of maternal and mate bonding—a love hormone, as it were. In recent years, interest has grown as research has established oxytocin’s role in bonding and its concrete linkages to trusting behavior.

Initial observations that the molecule was important in bonding came from lambs and voles. Injection of oxytocin into the brain of a sexually naive ewe elicits calf bonding and other maternal behaviors. Aware of this, researchers began to investigate the role of oxytocin and vasopressin, a sister molecule, in mate bonding in two species of vole, prairie and montane. Otherwise similar, these species show markedly different mating behavior. Following initial mating, prairie voles bond for life; montane voles don’t. This extends to differences in shared parenting and overall sociability. Prairie voles share parenting and socially aggregate; montane voles don’t. When oxytocin and vasopressin receptors are blocked experimentally, disrupting receptor function, prairie vole social behavior becomes like that of montane voles. This implies oxytocin and vasopressin are directly regulating mate bonding and social aggregation in voles.

In humans, behavioral economics has implicated oxytocin in trust. In a coordination game, when administered oxytocin, people invested more of their wealth with trustees. The game studied was such that the full value of an investment was at risk to the investor but not due to market unpredictability. Rather, the trustee got a guaranteed return. The trustee could then return any amount to the investor, introducing risk. Investors who received oxytocin instead of a placebo invested more on average and on more of the turns. Investors’ decreased risk aversion, attributable to oxytocin, was interpreted as increased trust. Interestingly, participants administered oxytocin are also more likely to be forgiving. That is, they are less likely to adopt risk-averse behavior in response to a breach of trust. Oxytocin might therefore be understood as a hormone that reduces moral vigilance and, thereby, promotes tolerance.

Churchland describes her project as examining the platform upon which morality is constructed. Her thesis is that the platform is maternal attachment to young. The largest single factor in human brain evolution is our exaggerated juvenile phase, during much of which we are helpless. This surely exerted strong selective pressure for parental behavior, care for kin. Churchland argues this is the forerunner of care for kith and strangers. Haidt, drawing from cross-cultural psychology, argues that the normative bedrock is not monolithic. He proposes six innate dimensions about which we are predisposed toward moralizing: harm-care, fairness-cheating, liberty-oppression, loyalty-betrayal, authority-subversion and sanctity-degradation. Churchland dissents, arguing that it is injudicious to expand the fold of primary offenses absent biological evidence—a position that overlooks results from infants and monkeys, which suggest the ethics of fairness and authority may have their own independent origins.

Innateness aside, we clearly judge not only the cruel, but also the unfair, tyrannical, disloyal, disrespectful and “impure.” Further, Haidt’s dimensions capture interesting variance. Genetic factors (like those affecting openness to experience), cultural factors (like sanitary customs) and personal experience appear to interact, setting one’s personal loading on each dimension. Political persuasion, intriguingly, is neatly reflected in these loadings: Liberals weight the three former dimensions more heavily than the latter ones. Conservatives weigh the six rather uniformly. Politics, then, can be aptly described as the teaming of like-minded moralizers in contests for power.

While the propensity to care and the like may be the cornerstone of the moral edifice, absent the propensity to judge, care is a behavior undifferentiated from other activities, like foraging. Haidt presents evidence for the centrality of emotion, not reason, in judgment. His research uses carefully constructed vignettes to probe ethical thinking. His experiments have participants make real-time judgments about scenarios constructed to offend sentiment, like eating a pet, but for which the factual account insulates the protagonists from ordinary lines of condemnation. Attempting to explain their moral judgments, participants find themselves talking in circles, offering rationales that ultimately prove incoherent. From this, Haidt concludes that affective reactions to social situations are prior, in time and causality, to cognitive assessments. That is, extemporaneous verbal explanations of moral values are more akin to post hoc self-interpretation than they are to ethical analysis. Intuition can be misleading.

Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and coiner of the term “cognitive neuroscience”, concludes likewise in Who’s In Charge?, observing that people who cite utilitarian motives for punishment, like deterrence, actually tend to act in accordance with retributivist principles. (This echoes Haidt but also implies retribution may reflect our evolved, if not enlightened, judicial predisposition.) Though extemporaneous explanations of moral belief may be largely rationalization, this need not imply that ethics simply veneer emotions, nor that moral instruction is therefore futile. Rather, emotional reflexes are labile. Social and self-derived feedback, reasoned or otherwise, can modify them.

Haidt links the rationalization of moral sentiment chiefly to external justification, an idea equally developed by Robert Kurzban. Kurzban’s overarching goal is to press readers to consider the modular organization of the mind and its implications for the internal consistency of belief, a phenomenon with obvious implications for morality. To explain self-deception (and many aspects of psychology) it is helpful both to consider the mind in light of evolution and to view it as an assemblage of processing modules.2

It is easiest to appreciate the role of evolution in shaping mentality if we consider animal behavior. For instance, upon taking over a pride, male lions kill all cubs who are not their own. As a result, the lionesses return to a state of sexual receptivity and new copulations occur. Animal behaviorists argue these behaviors are the product of natural selection. If males do not kill the cubs, they have fewer offspring due to female non-receptivity. If the lionesses don’t mate, they too have fewer offspring. Hence, the beastly practice.

Evolutionary psychology has its limits. It can only be applied rigorously to human behaviors that are common enough to be regarded as phenotypic of the species and that can be clearly shown to affect survival and fecundity. This domain, however, is still large. Moralizing behavior, for instance, is a good candidate to have been under selection. Putting empathy and emotion aside for a moment, evolutionary analysis may explain moralizing about infidelity. The essential question is, when is it reproductively advantageous for one party to restrict the sexual behavior of another? For females with high-quality mates, monogamy is clearly advantageous, as the male’s resources are exclusively devoted to the female’s offspring. Low-quality males also benefit from monogamy as, under polygamy, they are not regularly reproducing. From the perspective of any male, the less other males copulate, the better. For high-quality males, provided there remains some opportunity for unpunished, extra-pair copulation, the general proscription of polygamy is not especially costly. Low-quality females, however, lose something. They no longer have an option between sharing in the resources of a high-quality male and having the full resources of a lower-quality male. On the whole, a reasonable case can be made for a selective pressure promoting a species-typical behavior that enforces monogamy within one’s community, a moralization of infidelity.

A difficulty with this line of argument, however, is the math. In the lion example, the math is trivial. Most circumstances for which an application of evolutionary psychology might confidently be assumed require nontrivial calculations. Determining the true direction of selective pressure, like whether or not a moralizing regime for infidelity would be evolutionarily stable in a given population, involves estimating payoffs associated with trait adoption. For this, qualitative statements like “high value” or “some opportunity” must be unpacked, quantified and mathematically related. As this is nontrivial, arbitrating competing claims in evolutionary psychology is challenging. Nonetheless, provided the difficulty of proving claims is appreciated, musing about them can still be fruitful.

An offshoot of the above example is that it might be understandable for people to simultaneously be hypocrites and to abhor hypocrites. Such a person might benefit from the restraint imposed on others through persecution of wickedness while benefiting from being wanton. For an individual, then, it could be advantageous to be inconsistent—to both genuinely believe in the enforcement of proscriptions and to be oblivious to or forgiving of one’s own indiscretions. This presents a bit of a conundrum: How can a mind be made to be useful and yet also be incoherent? The answer is stove-piping or, more technically, information encapsulation, which psychologists call modularity. The idea is that the brain contains multiple networks, modules, whose circuitry is compartmentalized. Each module serves a specialized purpose. What dominates the overall character of the assembly of modules is evolutionary fitness. That evolution has structured its sensory and motor systems into a modular organization is uncontroversial. The extent and character of modularity as it applies to social psychology and higher-order functionality is more debatable, but to some extent modularity exists.

If the mind is modular, why consciousness feels unitary becomes an important question. Gazzaniga offers a solution, an Interpreter module whose function is to weave narrative from observation. His proposal is based on experiments with split-brain epilepsy patients, whose left and right cerebral hemispheres have been surgically disconnected as part of treatment.

In one experiment, Gazzaniga simultaneously presented two images to the patients but, through manipulation of the visual system, each hemisphere of the cerebral cortex saw only one of the images. Patients were asked to respond by pointing to a related picture, one for each image. On one trial, Gazzaniga showed a chicken claw to the left hemisphere and a snow scene to the right. The patient responded by pointing to a chicken with the hand controlled by the left hemisphere and a shovel with the hand controlled by the right. Asked to explain the selections, the patient reported choosing the chicken because it went with the claw. He chose the shovel not because it went with snow but because, “you have to clean out the chicken [shed] with a shovel.” Expressive language is lateralized to the left hemisphere, so it is not surprising that the expressive language areas were able to access sensory memory of the chicken claw. These areas, however, had no access to sensory memory in the right hemisphere, which saw the snow. Interestingly, rather than admitting uncertainty, the left hemisphere confabulated. In the response interval, it observed the selection of the shovel. Then it interpreted the other hemisphere’s behavior, inferring the shovel to have been chosen for its relatedness to chickens, not snow.

Gazzaniga argues that this kind of post hoc self-interpretation is actually a routine function of the left hemisphere and that we are largely oblivious to instances of such filling in. Thus, conscious experience may feel unitary because, even though the processing that actually determines feelings, actions and sensations is modular, consciousness is only aware of the net result and the Interpreter’s post hoc assessment of it.

Kurzban and Haidt extend this notion, arguing that the Interpreter is not merely responsible for proffering interpretations. They argue that it proffers strategically biased, even ignorant, interpretations, much like a public-relations department whose primary purpose is persuasion. We need to convince others of our value, our rectitude, and of others’ villainy. Self-deception aids in this mission. Evolution may have tailored our Interpreters to be prone to believe optimistic, upstanding appraisals of ourselves, such that we portray and disseminate the most advantageous defensible positions available.

Returning to hypocrisy, we care deeply about the actions of others and insist on punishing those who run afoul of our mores. When it comes to our own deeds, however, we often admit a greater degree of latitude. To account for this disparity, Kurzban divides morality, positing a conscience whose domain is the stewardship of one’s own behavior, and a judge whose domain is the enforcement of propriety in others. Each module generates urges and each competes with other modules—like sex drive, in the case of the conscience—for dominance of sentiment. Because modules operate competitively and because they contain blind spots, hypocrisy may come standard.

Who’s In Charge? reviews the neuroscience of free will—essential to accountability—and the implications of neuroscience for law. Gazzaniga’s approach to free will owes as much to physics as it does to neuroscience. The universe is made of particles. Quantum mechanics confines knowledge of these particles to the realm of probability. Nonetheless, when considering the behavior of collections of particles, classical and relativistic physics, which are deterministic, hold sway. Gazzaniga quotes Albert Einstein on his view of free will: “In human freedom, in the philosophical sense, I am definitely a disbeliever. Everyone acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity.”

Reconciling determinism with common sense is Gazzaniga’s first problem. He solves it through recourse to emergence and caution about levels of description. Just as life is an emergent property of the interactions of certain kinds of molecules, free will, as with consciousness, may be an emergent property of information processing. Similarly, though we cannot conceive of a molecule as itself being independently alive (nor should we), we readily conceive of systems of molecules as living. The relation between life and inanimacy should teach us to be cautious: Do not look for properties that may be phenomena of systems in the parts of systems. Thus, he wisely warns, we may be misguided if we infer free will’s impossibility from the laws of classical mechanics.

The second problem Gazzaniga engages is what neuroscience can tell us about free will. Some data suggest that the conscious impression of making a decision is an illusion. Consider reactions to painful stimuli. As noted above, pain fibers become active when their nerve endings sense damage to the integrity of the organism. They relay this information to the spinal cord, which initiates a reflexive response, for example, withdrawing one’s hand from a hot pan. Simultaneously, information of the painful event is relayed from the spinal cord to the brain. Only in the brain is the sensation of pain consciously felt. Although the brain did not have any role in the decision to withdraw the arm, we subjectively perceive ourselves as having felt the pain and having decided to withdraw the arm in response to the pain. In fact, the reaction happened prior to the conscious feeling of pain. Here again, we see the hand of the Interpreter. It seems to assemble a best inference about what happened from what it presumes possible.

The misattribution of free will to reflexive behavior is perhaps not of great consequence. A more formidable challenge comes from one line of experiments that suggest certain neural events precede conscious reports of decision-making by, depending on the type of experiment, hundreds to thousands of milliseconds. The most recent of these experiments monitored brain activity with functional MRI scans while participants made simple decisions about when to push a button. While deliberating, a stream of letters was shown to participants so that they could key the moment of decision to a moment in time via the letter on screen at the time of decision. Scientists later were able to show that certain brain activity could be used to predict decisions and that this activity occurred as much as ten seconds prior to conscious reports of decision-making! This suggests that conscious volition may only be apparent, that non-conscious processing predetermines action and the subjective impression of free will is just post hocinterpretation. Gazzaniga believes these experiments are not easy to interpret. The timing of the neural events that predict behavior need not correspond to the timing of the conscious impression of choice for the choice to have been volitional. Essentially, if the conscious mental timeline is something of a reconstruction, it is difficult to make inferences from brain- and report-timing discrepancies.

With respect to neuroscience in the courtroom, Gazzaniga argues that the application of neuroscience is, with rare exception, highly premature. Functional MRI-based lie detectors are presently little different from polygraphs. Similarly, what we know about brain organization and normal activity is derived from group analyses. Even when a result is highly reproducible across samples, individual variability may be large. What to make of this is an open question. At the least, it makes brain scans inadequate as exculpatory evidence. Finally, with respect to free will and accountability, Gazzaniga concludes, “The issue isn’t whether or not we are ‘free.’ The issue is that there is no scientific reason not to hold people accountable and responsible.”

The neuroscience of morality is important and exciting, yet very much a nascent enterprise. These books appropriately reflect this, engaging thought in philosophy and the social sciences as often as they do thought in the biological sciences. The authors write in the lucid, unsentimental style of books like Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works. Haidt and Churchland offer the freshest material. All are insightful and original. Through their prose, empiricism speaks volumes on humanity. Those inclined toward the sentimental in their appreciation of morality would do well by mastering the empirical.

1. Scientific American, April 5, 1884, p. 218.

2. For an account of the evolutionary origin of self-deception that does not rely on the logic of modularity, see Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (Basic Books, 2012).