Saturday, August 30, 2014

In Praise Of Being Bored by Alva Noë

From NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, Alva Noë muses on the joys (which I would add are relative) to enjoying a lazy afternoon of watching a boring baseball game.

Personally, boredom is nearly unfathomable to me. I am seldom bored with so much to know in the world that I don't know. And baseball, yes, IS boring, on par with watching paint dry. So this will have to be one of the few times I must disagree with Noë.

In Praise Of Being Bored

by Alva Noë
August 29, 2014

Two young boys at a Cincinnati Reds game.

When Bud Selig, baseball's long-serving commissioner, visited Oakland recently, he took the opportunity to bemoan the A's inadequate stadium and also to worry aloud about a topic that seems to loom large in the minds of many baseball people these days, namely, the increasingly slow pace of the game.

Indeed, the game has gotten slower over time.

A game today lasts, on average, more than 30 minutes longer than it did 30 years ago. I suspect the big culprit here is longer commercial breaks (between 30 and 40 minutes of a baseball game broadcast — the recent institution of instant replay may be a contributing factor). But the target of concern, as is so often the case, is the little guy — in this case, the players themselves. They're just playing too slowly, it is complained. Too much time elapses between pitches. Too many timeouts to adjust equipment or clothes.

Selig, in my opinion, is wrong on both counts. The A's have a great stadium. And baseball doesn't move too slowly.

As for the pace of the game, I am a bit surprised that MLB is concerned about this at all. Revenues are up, TV viewing is up, there are more teams than ever, and most of them are very rich. If you measure the sport's vitality in business terms, baseball, it would seem, has never been better. And if you visit the ballpark to watch a game, it's immediately clear that today's live baseball experience positively thrives on interruptions to the play. That's when you get to spend your money.

What exactly is the problem?

Don't say: "The game is too slow; it's getting boring."

As anyone who knows and loves baseball will tell you, baseball is boring. This is nothing new. Even at its most lively best, baseball is a game that unfolds at a walking pace, or at the pace of a relaxed conversation. When compared to the unstopping swarm dynamic of soccer or hockey, or the hustle and dance of basketball, baseball hardly even seems like a sport at all.

And this is what the great many of us who love baseball love about it. Baseball games aren't just long. There's no way of knowing how long they might be. A baseball game, like a good conversation, or a friendship, or a political controversy, has no fixed end. It takes however long it takes. As Selig observed, baseball is a game without a clock. And that's a good thing.

Selig also questions whether this kind of unstructured, open time is palatable in today's fast-paced world.

I say: God save us from today's ramped up, multi-interrupted, selfie-consumed, fast-paced world! We need to slow down. We need to turn off. We need to unplug. We need to start things and not know when they are going to end. We need evenings at the ballpark, evenings spent outside of real time.

What's so bad about being bored?

I found myself at a table with Europeans the other night. Inevitably, the topic turned to the relative merits of baseball and what they call "football." I had to restrain myself from expressing my irritation. It isn't that there isn't a boatload to be said about how these sports differ from each other. And it is certainly true that we love our sports and may find ourselves actively disliking the sports of others. For example, I admit that I found myself wanting to turn off the World Cup once they moved from flopping around on the floor in throes of pretend agony to actually biting each other.

But the thing is, arguing about sports is like arguing about foods. We like what we grew up with; kids around the world aren't soccer fans because, after having surveyed the world's sports, they chose soccer. And the same goes for Americans and baseball. We don't like our sports because they're great. They are great because we like them. Or, maybe, loving a sport — coming to understand it — lets you see the greatness that otherwise goes unwitnessed.

As for Selig's judgment on the A's stadium, I agree it's an old concrete and steel throwback to another era. True, there are no roller coasters, or hot tubs, or extensive gourmet food offerings. And yes, you can see the faded paint of the Raiders' gridiron running across the A's diamond.

But field is a fabulous place to watch baseball. It may not be a top-of-the-line shopping mall and entertainment center, but it is a spacious, open, cathedral of baseball. It is a place where baseball happens and where you just may find, if you are lucky, that you have the opportunity to relax and get bored.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Alan Lightman - My Own Personal Nothingness

Physicist and novelist Alan Lightman is one of my favorite science authors and has been ever since I read his novel, Einstein's Dreams back in 1993. His most recent book (Jan, 2014) is The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew. [He is also the author of A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit (2005).]

This cool essay comes from Nautilus magazine, Issue 16, Chapter 4, on the topic of Nothingness.

My Own Personal Nothingness

From a childhood hallucination to the halls of theoretical physics.

By Alan Lightman | Illustration By Gérard DuBois
August 28, 2014
“Nothing will come of nothing.”
(William Shakespeare, King Lear)

“Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.”
(Blaise Pascal, Pensées, The Misery of Man Without God)

“The… ‘lumniferous ether’ will prove to be superfluous as the view to be developed here will eliminate [the condition of] absolute rest in space.”
(Albert Einstein, On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies)
MY MOST VIVID encounter with Nothingness occurred in a remarkable experience I had as a child of 9 years old. It was a Sunday afternoon. I was standing alone in a bedroom of my home in Memphis Tennessee, gazing out the window at the empty street, listening to the faint sound of a train passing a great distance away, and suddenly I felt that I was looking at myself from outside my body. I was somewhere in the cosmos. For a brief few moments, I had the sensation of seeing my entire life, and indeed the life of the entire planet, as a brief flicker in a vast chasm of time, with an infinite span of time before my existence and an infinite span of time afterward. My fleeting sensation included infinite space. Without body or mind, I was somehow floating in the gargantuan stretch of space, far beyond the solar system and even the galaxy, space that stretched on and on and on. I felt myself to be a tiny speck, insignificant in a vast universe that cared nothing about me or any living beings and their little dots of existence, a universe that simply was. And I felt that everything I had experienced in my young life, the joy and the sadness, and everything that I would later experience, meant absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. It was a realization both liberating and terrifying at once. Then, the moment was over, and I was back in my body.

The strange hallucination lasted only a minute or so. I have never experienced it since. Although Nothingness would seem to exclude awareness along with the exclusion of everything else, awareness was part of that childhood experience, but not the usual awareness I would locate within the three pounds of gray matter in my head. It was a different kind of awareness. I am not religious, and I do not believe in the supernatural. I do not think for a minute that my mind actually left my body. But for a few moments I did experience a profound absence of the familiar surroundings and thoughts we create to anchor our lives. It was a kind of Nothingness.

TO UNDERSTAND anything, as Aristotle argued, we must understand what it is not, and Nothingness is the ultimate opposition to any thing. To understand matter, said the ancient Greeks, we must understand the “void,” or the absence of matter. Indeed, in the fifth century B.C., Leucippus argued that without the void there could be no motion because there would be no empty spaces for matter to move into. According to Buddhism, to understand our ego we must understand the ego-free state of “emptiness,” called śūnyatā. To understand the civilizing effects of society, we must understand the behavior of human beings removed from society, as William Golding so powerfully explored in his novel Lord of the Flies.

Following Aristotle, let me say what Nothingness is not. It is not a unique and absolute condition. Nothingness means different things in different contexts. From the perspective of life, Nothingness might mean death. To a physicist, it might mean the complete absence of matter and energy (an impossibility, as we will see), or even the absence of time and space. To a lover, Nothingness might mean the absence of the beloved. To a parent, it might mean the absence of children. To a painter, the absence of color. To a reader, a world without books. To a person impassioned with empathy, emotional numbness. To a theologian or philosopher like Pascal, Nothingness meant the timeless and spaceless infinity known only by God. When King Lear says to his daughter Cordelia, “Nothing will come of nothing,” he means that she will receive far less of his kingdom than her two fawning sisters unless she can express her boundless love for him. The second “nothing” refers to Cordelia’s silence contrasted with her sisters’ gushing adoration, while the first is her impending one-room shack compared to their opulent palaces.

Although Nothingness may have different meanings in different circumstances, I want to emphasize what is perhaps obvious: All of its meanings involve a comparison to a material thing or condition we know. That is, Nothingness is a relative concept. We cannot conceive of anything that has no relation to the material things, thoughts, and conditions of our existence. Sadness, by itself, has no meaning without reference to joy. Poverty is defined in terms of a minimum income and standard of living. The sensation of a full stomach exists in comparison to that of an empty one. The sensation of Nothingness I experienced as a child was a contrast to feeling centered in my body and in time.

The Commute: Alan Lightman en route to his summer home off the coast of Maine. Michael Segal

MY FIRST experience with Nothingness in the material world of science occurred when I was a graduate student in theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology. In my second year, I took a formidable course with the title of Quantum Field Theory, which explained how all of space is filled up with “energy fields,” usually called just “fields” by physicists. There is a field for gravity and a field for electricity and magnetism, and so on. What we regard as physical “matter” is the excitation of the underlying fields. A key point is that according to the laws of quantum physics, all of these fields are constantly jittering a bit—it is an impossibility for a field to be completely dormant—and the jittering causes subatomic particles like electrons and their antiparticles, called positrons, to appear for a brief moment and then disappear again, even when there is no persistent matter. Physicists call a region of space with the lowest possible amount of energy in it the “vacuum.” But the vacuum cannot be free of fields. The fields necessarily permeate all space. And because they are constantly jittering, they are constantly producing matter and energy, at least for brief periods of time. Thus the “vacuum” in modern physics is not the void of the ancient Greeks. The void does not exist. Every cubic centimeter of space in the universe, no matter how empty it seems, is actually a chaotic circus of fluctuating fields and particles flickering in and out of existence on the subatomic scale. Thus, at the material level, there is no such thing as Nothingness.

Remarkably, the active nature of the “vacuum” has been observed in the lab. The principal example lies in the energies of electrons in hydrogen atoms, which can be measured to high accuracy by the light they emit. According to quantum mechanics, the electric and magnetic field of the vacuum is constantly producing short-lived pairs of electrons and positrons. These ghostlike particles pop out of the vacuum into being, enjoy their lives for about one-billionth of one-billionth of a second, and then disappear again.

In an isolated hydrogen atom, surrounded by seemingly empty space, the proton at the center of the atom draws the fleeting vacuum electrons toward it and repulses the vacuum positrons, causing its electrical charge to be slightly reduced. This reduction of the proton’s charge, in turn, slightly modifies the energy of the orbiting (non vacuum) electrons in a process called the Lamb shift, named after physicist Willis Lamb and first measured in 1947. The measured shift in energy is quite small, only three parts in 100 million. But it agrees very closely with the complex equations of the theory—a fantastic validation of the quantum theory of the vacuum. It is a triumph of the human mind to understand so much about empty space.

The concept of empty space—and Nothingness—played a major role in modern physics even before our understanding of the quantum vacuum. According to findings in the mid 19th century, light is a traveling wave of electromagnetic energy, and it was conventional wisdom that all waves, such as sound waves and water waves, required a material medium to carry them along. Take the air out of a room, and you will not hear someone speaking. Take the water out of a lake, and you cannot make waves. The material medium hypothesized to convey light was a gossamer substance called the “ether.” Because we can see light from distant stars, the ether had to fill up all space. Thus, there was no such thing as empty space. Space was filled with the ether.

In 1887, in one of the most famous experiments in all of physics, two American physicists at what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio attempted to measure the motion of the earth through the ether. Their experiment failed. Or rather, they could not detect any effects of the ether. Then, in 1905, the 26-year-old Albert Einstein proposed that the ether did not exist. Instead, he hypothesized that light, unlike all other waves, could propagate through completely empty space. All this was before quantum physics.

That denial of the ether, and hence embrace of a true emptiness, followed from a deeper hypothesis of the young Einstein: There is no condition of absolute rest in the cosmos. Without absolute rest, there cannot be absolute motion. You cannot say that a train is moving at a speed of 50 miles per hour in any absolute sense. You can say only that the train is moving at 50 miles per hour relative to another object, like a train station. Only the relative motion between two objects has any meaning. The reason Einstein did away with the ether is because it would have established a reference frame of absolute rest in the cosmos. With a material ether filling up all space, you could say whether an object is at rest or not, just as you can say whether a boat in a lake is at rest or in motion with respect to the water. So, through the work of Einstein, the idea of material emptiness, or Nothingness, was connected to the rejection of absolute rest in the cosmos. In sum, first there was the ether filling up all space. Then Einstein removed the ether, leaving truly empty space. Then other physicists filled space again with quantum fields. But quantum fields do not restore a reference frame of absolute rest because they are not a static material in space. Einstein’s principle of relativity remained.

One of the pioneers of quantum field theory was the legendary physicist Richard Feynman, a professor at Caltech and a member of my thesis committee. In the late 1940s, Feynman and others developed the theory of how electrons interact with the ghostly particles of the vacuum. Earlier in that decade, as a cocky young scientist, he had worked on the Manhattan Project. By the time I knew him at Caltech, in the early 1970s, Feynman had mellowed a bit but was still ready to overturn received wisdom at the drop of a hat. Every day, he wore white shirts, exclusively white shirts, because he said they were easier to match with different colored pants, and he hated to spend time fussing about his clothes. Feynman also had a strong distaste for philosophy. Although he had quite a wit, he viewed the material world in a highly straightforward manner, without caring to speculate on the purely hypothetical or subjective. He could and did talk for hours about the behavior of the quantum vacuum, but he would not waste a minute on philosophical or theological considerations of Nothingness. My experience with Feynman taught me that a person can be a great scientist without concerning him or herself with questions of “Why,” which fall beyond the scientifically provable.

However, Feynman did understand that the mind can create its own reality. That understanding was revealed in the Commencement address he gave at my graduation from Caltech in 1974. It was a boiling day in late May, outdoors of course, and we graduates were all sweating heavily in our caps and gowns. In his talk, Feynman made the point that before publishing any scientific results, we should think of all the possible ways that we could be wrong. “The first principle” he said, “is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

IN THE Wachowski Brothers’ landmark film The Matrix (1999), we are well into the drama before we realize that all the reality experienced by the characters—the pedestrians walking the streets, the buildings and restaurants and night clubs, the entire cityscape—is an illusion, a fake movie played in the brains of human beings by a master computer. Actual reality is a devastated and desolate planet, in which human beings are imprisoned, comatose, in leaf-like pods and drained of their life energy to power the machines. I would argue that much of what we call reality in our lives is also an illusion, and that we are much closer to dissolution, and Nothingness, than we usually acknowledge.

Let me explain. A highly unpleasant idea, but one that has been accepted by scientists over the last couple of centuries, is that we human beings, and all living beings, are completely material. That is, we are made of material atoms, and only material atoms. To be precise, the average human being consists of about 7 x 1027 atoms (7,000 trillion trillion atoms)—65 percent oxygen, 18 percent carbon, 10 percent hydrogen, 3 percent nitrogen, 1.4 percent calcium, 1.1 percent phosphorous, and traces of 54 other chemical elements. The totality of our tissues and muscles and organs and brain cells is composed of these atoms. And there is nothing else. To a vast cosmic being, each of us would appear to be an assemblage of atoms. To be sure, it is a special assemblage. A rock does not behave like a person. But the mental sensations we experience as consciousness and thought are purely material consequences of the purely material electrical and chemical interactions between neurons, which in turn are simply assemblages of atoms. And when we die, this special assemblage disassembles. The total number of atoms in our body at our last breath remains constant. Each atom could be tagged and tracked as it subsequently mingled with air and water and soil. The material would remain, scattered about. Each of us is a temporary assemblage of atoms, not more and not less. We are all on the verge of material disassemblage and dissolution.

All that having been said, the sensation of consciousness is so powerful and compelling that we endow other human beings—i.e. certain other assemblages of atoms—with a transcendent quality, some nonmaterial and magnificent essence. And as the assemblage of atoms most important to each of us is our own self, we endow ourselves with a transcendent quality—a self, an ego, an “I-ness”—that blooms far larger and more significant than merely a collection of atoms.

Likewise, our human-made institutions. We endow our art and our cultures and our codes of ethics and our laws with a grand and everlasting existence. We give these institutions an authority that extends far beyond ourselves. But in fact, all of these are constructions of our minds. That is, these institutions and codes and their imputed meanings are all consequences of exchanges between neurons, which in turn are simply material atoms. They are all mental constructions. They have no reality other than that which we give them, individually and collectively.

The Buddhists have understood this notion for centuries. It is part of the Buddhist concepts of emptiness and impermanence. The transcendent, nonmaterial, long-lasting qualities that we impart to other human beings and to human institutions are an illusion, like the computer-generated world in The Matrix. It is certainly true that we human beings have achieved what, to our minds, is extraordinary accomplishment. We have scientific theories that can make accurate predictions about the world. We have created paintings and music and literature that we consider beautiful and meaningful. We have entire systems of laws and social codes. But these things have no intrinsic value outside of our minds. And our minds are a collection of atoms, fated to disassemble and dissolve. And in that sense, we and our institutions are always approaching Nothingness.

So where do such sobering thoughts leave us? Given our temporary and self-constructed reality, how should we then live our lives, as individuals and as a society? As I have been approaching my own personal Nothingness, I have mulled these questions over quite a bit, and I have come to some tentative conclusions to guide my own life. Each person must think through these profound questions for him or herself—there are no right answers. I believe that as a society we need to realize we have great power to make our laws and other institutions whatever we wish to make them. There is no external authority. There are no external limitations. The only limitation is our own imagination. So, we should take the time to think expansively about who we are and what we want to be.

As for each of us as individuals, until the day when we can upload our minds to computers, we are confined to our physical body and brain. And, for better or for worse, we are stuck with our personal mental state, which includes our personal pleasures and pains. Whatever concept we have of reality, without a doubt we experience personal pleasure and pain. We feel. Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” We might also say, “I feel, therefore I am.” And when I talk about feeling pleasure and pain, I do not mean merely physical pleasure and pain. Like the ancient Epicureans, I mean all forms of pleasure and pain: intellectual, artistic, moral, philosophical, and so on. All of these forms of pleasure and pain we experience, and we cannot avoid experiencing them. They are the reality of our bodies and minds, our internal reality. And here is the point I have reached: I might as well live in such a way as to maximize my pleasure and minimize my pain. Accordingly, I try to eat delicious food, to support my family, to create beautiful things, and to help those less fortunate than myself because those activities bring me pleasure. Likewise, I try to avoid leading a dull life, to avoid personal anarchy, and to avoid hurting others because those activities bring me pain. That is how I should live. A number of thinkers far deeper than I, most notably the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, have come to these same conclusions via very different routes.

What I feel and I know is that I am here now, at this moment in the grand sweep of time. I am not part of the void. I am not a fluctuation in the quantum vacuum. Even though I understand that someday my atoms will be scattered in soil and in air, that I will no longer exist, that I will join some kind of Nothingness, I am alive now. I am feeling this moment. I can see my hand on my writing desk. I can feel the warmth of the sun through the window. And looking out, I can see the pine-needled path that goes down to the sea. Now.

~ Alan Lightman is a physicist, novelist, and professor of the practice of the humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His latest book is The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Serotonin Not Found to Be a Major Player in Depression


Some of us have been saying this for at least a decade, and some really smart people have known this for decades. This demonstrates why SSRI and SNRI are not effective in "curing" depression - at best, they manage the symptoms by creating more serotonin. More directly said, these drugs get you high on serotonin and you feel a little better. 

FINALLY, someone decided to test this hypothesis. Using mice that are genetically depleted of serotonin, these assessed the mice for depressive symptoms and found that they did not exhibit any more depression than other mice. They were, however, compulsive and aggressive.

One additional finding is worth noting - some of the serotonin "knockout" mice responded identically to normal mice when given antidepressant medications.

Serotonin not found to be a major player in depression

Friday 29 August 2014

New evidence puts into doubt the long-standing belief that a deficiency in serotonin - a chemical messenger in the brain - plays a central role in depression. In the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience, scientists report that mice lacking the ability to make serotonin in their brains (and thus should have been "depressed" by conventional wisdom) did not show depression-like symptoms.

Donald Kuhn and colleagues at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center and Wayne State University School of Medicine note that depression poses a major public health problem. More than 350 million people suffer from it, according to the World Health Organization, and it is the leading cause of disability across the globe. In the late 1980s, the now well-known antidepressant Prozac was introduced. The drug works mainly by increasing the amounts of one substance in the brain - serotonin. So scientists came to believe that boosting levels of the signaling molecule was the key to solving depression. Based on this idea, many other drugs to treat the condition entered the picture. But now researchers know that 60 to 70 percent of these patients continue to feel depressed, even while taking the drugs. Kuhn's team set out to study what role, if any, serotonin played in the condition.

To do this, they developed "knockout" mice that lacked the ability to produce serotonin in their brains. The scientists ran a battery of behavioral tests.

Interestingly, the mice were compulsive and extremely aggressive, but didn't show signs of depression-like symptoms. Another surprising finding is that when put under stress, the knockout mice behaved in the same way most of the normal mice did. Also, a subset of the knockout mice responded therapeutically to antidepressant medications in a similar manner to the normal mice. These findings further suggest that serotonin is not a major player in the condition, and different factors must be involved. These results could dramatically alter how the search for new antidepressants moves forward in the future, the researchers conclude.
* * * * *

Here is the abstract for the full article, from ACS Chemical Neuroscience.

Full Citation:
Angoa-Pérez, M, Kane, MJ, Briggs, DI, Herrera-Mundo, N, Sykes, CE, Francescutti, Dm, and Kuhn, DM. (2014, Aug 4). Mice Genetically Depleted of Brain Serotonin Do Not Display a Depression-like Behavioral Phenotype. ACS Chem. Neurosci.; DOI: 10.1021/cn500096g

Mice Genetically Depleted of Brain Serotonin Do Not Display a Depression-like Behavioral Phenotype

Mariana Angoa-Pérez, Michael J. Kane, Denise I. Briggs, Nieves Herrera-Mundo, Catherine E. Sykes, Dina M. Francescutti, and Donald M. Kuhn

ABSTRACT: Reductions in function within the serotonin (5HT) neuronal system have long been proposed as etiological factors in depression. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common treatment for depression, and their therapeutic effect is generally attributed to their ability to increase the synaptic levels of 5HT. Tryptophan hydroxylase 2 (TPH2) is the initial and rate-limiting enzyme in the biosynthetic pathway of 5HT in the CNS, and losses in its catalytic activity lead to reductions in 5HT production and release. The time differential between the onset of 5HT reuptake inhibition by SSRIs (minutes) and onset of their antidepressant efficacy (weeks to months), when considered with their overall poor therapeutic effectiveness, has cast some doubt on the role of 5HT in depression. Mice lacking the gene for TPH2 are genetically depleted of brain 5HT and were tested for a depression-like behavioral phenotype using a battery of valid tests for affective-like disorders in animals. The behavior of TPH2−/− mice on the sucrose preference test, tail suspension test, and forced swim test and their responses in the unpredictable chronic mild stress and learned helplessness paradigms was the same as wild-type controls. While TPH2−/− mice as a group were not responsive to SSRIs, a subset responded to treatment with SSRIs in the same manner as wild-type controls with significant reductions in immobility time on the tail suspension test, indicative of antidepressant drug effects. The behavioral phenotype of the TPH2−/− mouse questions the role of 5HT in depression. Furthermore, the TPH2−/− mouse may serve as a useful model in the search for new medications that have therapeutic targets for depression that are outside of the 5HT neuronal system.

Forum: Against Empathy - Paul Bloom

From the Boston Review, Paul Bloom (Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology & Cognitive Science at Yale University and author of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil) argues against empathy. Bloom feels, " I am not against morality, compassion, kindness, love, being a good neighbor, doing the right thing, and making the world a better place. My claim is actually the opposite: if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide."

Being a forum, there are replies from a wide range of people, including Peter Singer, Simon Baron-Cohen, Sam Harris, and Jesse Prinz.

Forum: Against Empathy


Opening the Debate - Paul Bloom:

Most people see the benefits of empathy as too obvious to require justification. This is a mistake. 



Peter Singer
Jack W. Berry, Lynn E. O'Connor
Marianne LaFrance
Nomy Arpaly
Christine Montross
Barbara H. Fried
Leslie Jamison
Leonardo Christov-Moore, Marco Iacoboni
Simon Baron-Cohen
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig
Sam Harris
Jesse Prinz

Reply: Paul Bloom

Against Empathy

Paul Bloom
Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Photograph: Samantha Stock

When asked what I am working on, I often say I am writing a book about empathy. People tend to smile and nod, and then I add, “I’m against it.” This usually gets an uncomfortable laugh.

This reaction surprised me at first, but I’ve come to realize that taking a position against empathy is like announcing that you hate kittens—a statement so outlandish it can only be a joke. And so I’ve learned to clarify, to explain that I am not against morality, compassion, kindness, love, being a good neighbor, doing the right thing, and making the world a better place. My claim is actually the opposite: if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.

The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but here I am adopting its most common meaning, which corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more coldblooded process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy. I will follow this convention here, but we should keep in mind that the two are distinct—they emerge from different brain processes; you can have a lot of one and a little of the other—and that most of the discussion of the moral implications of empathy focuses on its emotional side.

Some degree of emotional empathy is bred in the bone. The sight and sound of another’s suffering is unpleasant for babies and, as soon as they are mobile enough, they try to help, patting and soothing others in distress. This is not uniquely human: the primatologist Frans de Waal notes that chimps will often put their arms around the victim of an attack and pat her or groom her.

Empathy can occur automatically, even involuntarily. Smith describes how “persons of delicate fibres” who notice a beggar’s sores and ulcers “are apt to feel an itching or uneasy sensation in the correspondent part of their own bodies.” John Updike writes, “My grandmother would have choking fits at the kitchen table, and my own throat would feel narrow in sympathy.”

And empathy can be extended through the imagination. In a speech before he became president, Barack Obama stressed how important it is
to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. . . . When you think like this—when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers—it becomes harder not to act, harder not to help.
Obama is right about this last part; there is considerable support for what the psychologist C. Daniel Batson calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis”: when you empathize with others, you are more likely to help them. In general, empathy serves to dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it is a force against selfishness and indifference.

It is easy to see, then, how empathy can be a moral good, and it has many champions. Obama talks frequently about empathy; witness his recent claim, after his first meeting with Pope Francis, that “it’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.” In The Empathetic Civilization (2009) Jeremy Rifkin argues that the only way our species will survive war, environmental degradation, and economic collapse is through the enhancement of “global empathy.” This past June, Bill and Melinda Gates concluded their Stanford commencement address by asking students to nurture and expand their empathetic powers, essential for a better world.

Most people see the benefits of empathy as akin to the evils of racism: too obvious to require justification. I think this is a mistake. I have argued elsewhere that certain features of empathy make it a poor guide to social policy. Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. As Mother Teresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Laboratory studies find that we really do care more about the one than about the mass, so long as we have personal information about the one.

In light of these features, our public decisions will be fairer and more moral once we put empathy aside. Our policies are improved when we appreciate that a hundred deaths are worse than one, even if we know the name of the one, and when we acknowledge that the life of someone in a faraway country is worth as much as the life a neighbor, even if our emotions pull us in a different direction. Without empathy, we are better able to grasp the importance of vaccinating children and responding to climate change. These acts impose costs on real people in the here and now for the sake of abstract future benefits, so tackling them may require overriding empathetic responses that favor the comfort and well being of individuals today. We can rethink humanitarian aid and the criminal justice system, choosing to draw on a reasoned, even counter-empathetic, analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences.

But even if you accept this argument, there is a lot more to life than public policy. Consider our everyday interactions with our parents and children, with our partners and friends. Consider also certain special relationships, such as that between doctor and patient or therapist and client. Empathy might not scale up to the policy level, but it seems an unalloyed good when it comes to these intimate relationships—the more the better.

I used to believe this, but I am no longer sure.

• • •

One of empathy’s most thoughtful defenders is the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. In his 2011 book The Science of Evil, he draws upon psychology and neuroscience to argue that the notion of evil should be replaced with “empathy erosion” and that a high degree of empathy is what makes for good people and good societies.

Individuals differ in their disposition to feel empathy, and Baron-Cohen posits an empathy curve that runs from Level 0, where there is no empathy at all, to Level 6, where one is “continually focused on other people’s feelings . . . . in a constant state of hyperarousal, such that other people are never off their radar.” He sketches one such Level 6 individual:
Hannah is a psychotherapist who has a natural gift for tuning into how others are feeling. As soon as you walk into her living room, she is already reading your face, your gait, your posture. The first thing she asks you is ‘How are you?’ but this is no perfunctory platitude. Her intonation—even before you have taken off your coat—suggests an invitation to confide, to disclose, to share. Even if you just answer with a short phrase, your tone of voice reveals to her your inner emotional state, and she quickly follows up your answer with ‘You sound a bit sad. What’s happened to upset you?’
Before you know it, you are opening up to this wonderful listener, who interjects only to offer sounds of comfort and concern, to mirror how you feel, occasionally offering soothing words to boost you and make you feel valued. Hannah is not doing this because it is her job to do so. She is like this with her clients, her friends, and even people she has only just met. Hannah’s friends feel cared for by her, and her friendships are built around sharing confidences and offering mutual support. She has an unstoppable drive to empathize.
It is easy to see what Baron-Cohen finds so impressive here. Hannah sounds like a good therapist, and it seems as if she would also be a good mother to young children.

But consider what it must be like to be her. Hannah’s concern for other people doesn’t derive from particular appreciation or respect for them; her concern is indiscriminate and applies to strangers as well as friends. She also does not endorse a guiding principle based on compassion and kindness. Rather, Hannah is compelled by hyperarousal—her drive is unstoppable. Her experience is the opposite of selfishness but just as extreme. A selfish person might go through life indifferent to the pleasure and pain of others—ninety-nine for him and one for everyone else—while in Hannah’s case, the feelings of others are always in her head—ninety-nine for everyone else and one for her.

It is no accident that Baron-Cohen chose a woman as his example. In a series of empirical and theoretical articles, psychologists Vicki Helgeson and Heidi Fritz have explored why women are twice as likely as men to experience depression. Their results suggest that this divergence is explained in part by a sex difference in the propensity for “unmitigated communion,” defined as “an excessive concern with others and placing others’ needs before one’s own.” Helgeson and Fritz developed a simple nine-item questionnaire, which asks respondents to indicate whether they agree with statements such as, “For me to be happy, I need others to be happy,” “I can’t say no when someone asks me for help,” and “I often worry about others’ problems.” Women typically score higher than men on this scale; Hannah would, I bet, score high indeed.

Strong inclination toward empathy comes with costs. Individuals scoring high in unmitigated communion report asymmetrical relationships, where they support others but don’t get support themselves. They also are more prone to suffer depression and anxiety. Working from a different literature on “pathological altruism,” Barbara Oakley notes in Cold-Blooded Kindness (2011), “It’s surprising how many diseases and syndromes commonly seen in women seem to be related to women’s generally stronger empathy for and focus on others.”

The problems that arise here have to do with emotional empathy—feeling another’s pain. This leads to what psychologists call empathetic distress. We can contrast this with non-empathetic compassion—a more distanced love and kindness and concern for others. Such compassion is a psychological plus. Putting aside the obvious point that some degree of caring for others is morally right, kindness and altruism are associated with all sorts of positive physical and psychological outcomes, including a boost in both short-term mood and long-term happiness. If you want to get happy, helping others is an excellent way to do so.

It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.

Or consider long-distance charity. It is conceivable, I suppose, that someone who hears about the plight of starving children might actually go through the empathetic exercise of imagining what it is like to starve to death. But this empathetic distress surely isn’t necessary for charitable giving. A compassionate person might value others’ lives in the abstract, and, recognizing the misery caused by starvation, be motivated to act accordingly.

Summing up, compassionate helping is good for you and for others. But empathetic distress is destructive of the individual in the long run.

It might also be of little help to other people because experiencing others’ pain is exhausting and leads to burnout. This issue is explored in the Buddhist literature on morality. Consider the life of a bodhisattva, an enlightened person who vows not to pass into Nirvana, choosing instead to stay in the normal cycle of life and death to help the masses. How is a bodhisattva to live? In Consequences of Compassion (2009) Charles Goodman notes the distinction in Buddhists texts between “sentimental compassion,” which corresponds to empathy, and “great compassion,” which involves love for others without empathetic attachment or distress. Sentimental compassion is to be avoided, as it “exhausts the bodhisattva.” Goodman defends great compassion, which is more distanced and reserved and can be sustained indefinitely.

This distinction has some support in the collaborative work of Tania Singer, a psychologist and neuroscientist, and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, meditation expert, and former scientist. In a series of studies using fMRI brain scanning, Ricard was asked to engage in various types of compassion meditation directed toward people who are suffering. To the surprise of the investigators, these meditative states did not activate parts of the brain that are normally activated by non-meditators when they think about others’ pain. Ricard described his meditative experience as “a warm positive state associated with a strong prosocial motivation.”

He was then asked to put himself in an empathetic state and was scanned while doing so. Now the appropriate circuits associated with empathetic distress were activated. “The empathic sharing,” Ricard said, “very quickly became intolerable to me and I felt emotionally exhausted, very similar to being burned out.”

One sees a similar contrast in ongoing experiments led by Singer and her colleagues in which people are either given empathy training, which focuses on the capacity to experience the suffering of others, or compassion training, in which subjects are trained to respond to suffering with feelings of warmth and care. According to Singer’s results, among test subjects who underwent empathy training, “negative affect was increased in response to both people in distress and even to people in everyday life situations. . . . these findings underline the belief that engaging in empathic resonance is a highly aversive experience and, as such, can be a risk factor for burnout.” Compassion training—which doesn’t involve empathetic arousal to the perceived distress of others—was more effective, leading to both increased positive emotions and increased altruism.

This brings us to the targets of empathy. As I write this, an older relative of mine who has cancer is going back and forth to hospitals and rehabilitation centers. I’ve watched him interact with doctors and learned what he thinks of them. He values doctors who take the time to listen to him and develop an understanding of his situation; he benefits from this sort of cognitive empathy. But emotional empathy is more complicated. He gets the most from doctors who don’t feel as he does, who are calm when he is anxious, confident when he is uncertain. And he particularly appreciates certain virtues that have little directly to do with empathy, virtues such as competence, honesty, professionalism, and respect.

Leslie Jamison makes a similar point in her new essay collection The Empathy Exams. Jamison was at one time a medical actor—she would fake symptoms for medical students, who would diagnose her as part of their training. She also rated them on their skills. The most important entry on her checklist was number thirty-one: “Voiced empathy for my situation/problem.” But when she discusses her real experiences with doctors, her assessment of empathy is mixed. She met with one doctor who was cold and unsympathetic to her concerns, which caused her pain. But she is grateful to another who kept a reassuring distance and objectivity: “I didn’t need him to be my mother—even for a day—I only needed him to know what he was doing,” she writes. “His calmness didn’t make me feel abandoned, it made me feel secure. . . . I needed to look at him and see the opposite of my fear, not its echo.”

Or consider friendship and love. Hannah’s “soothing words,” her “sounds of comfort and concern” and mirroring of others’ feelings describe how a certain type of therapist treats a client or how a certain type of parent treats an anxious toddler. But this isn’t how friendship usually works. Friendship is rooted in symmetry and equality, shared projects, teasing and jokes and gossip, all of which are absent from a therapeutic relationship. While I might benefit from a friend’s therapy if I were feeling deeply anxious or depressed, I don’t, on the whole, want my friends to treat me like a suffering patient, softly murmuring reassurances when they detect that I’m out of sorts. Hannah’s “You sound a bit sad. What’s happened to upset you?” exemplifies what Jamison means when she says, “Empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion.”

Putting aside the extremes, do more empathetic people make better friends and partners? To my knowledge, this has never been studied. Certainly we want our friends to understand us and to care about us. It would be unnerving if someone I love never flinched in the face of my suffering or lit up at my joy. But this is not because I want them to mirror my feelings; rather, it is because if they love me, they should worry about my misfortunes and be pleased when I do well. From a purely selfish standpoint, I might not want their empathetic resonance, particularly when I am feeling down. I would prefer that they greet my panic with calm and my sadness with good cheer. As Cicero said about friendship—but he could just as well have been talking about close relationships in general—it “improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief.”

• • •

When we think about individuals on the other extreme, what Baron-Cohen would describe as empathy Level 0, we naturally think about psychopaths, sociopaths, or antisocial/psychopathic personality types (the terms typically are used synonymously). Psychopaths are identified in poplar culture as the embodiment of evil. The term describes everyone from predatory CEOs to callous politicians to cannibal-killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and the fictional Hannibal Lecter.  

There is a standard test for psychopathy developed by the psychologist Robert Hare. It is used to make legal decisions about criminal offenders, including whether they should be incarcerated for life, and used as well by experimental psychologists who give the test to undergraduates to explore how their scores relate to, for instance, attitudes toward sexual violence and their style of moral reasoning. If you like this sort of thing, you can take the test online, rating yourself on traits such as “glibness/superficial charm,” “lack of remorse or guilt,” and “promiscuous sexual behavior.”

The most important item for many people is “callous/lack of empathy.” Many popular treatments of psychopathy, such as Jon Ronson’s 2011 bestseller The Psychopath Test, see a lack of empathy as the core deficit in psychopathy. It is here that cognitive and emotional empathy come apart, because many people diagnosed with psychopathy are excellent at reading others’ minds. This is what enables them to be such masterful manipulators, con men, and seducers. But the emotional part is thought to be absent—they cannot feel other people’s pain—and this is why psychopaths are such terrible people.

This might be the popular picture, but the truth is more complicated. For one thing, as philosopher Jesse Prinz points out, psychopaths suffer from dulling of just about all emotional responses, not just empathy. This overall blunting of feeling—or “shallow affect”—is one of the criteria on the checklist. It was observed by Harvey Cleckley in The Mask of Sanity, his 1941 book that provided the first clinical description of psychopathy:
Vexation, spite, quick and labile flashes of quasi-affection, peevish resentment, shallow moods of self-pity, puerile attitudes of vanity, and absurd and showy poses of indignation are all within his emotional scale and are freely sounded as the circumstances of life play upon him. But mature, wholehearted anger, true or consistent indignation, honest, solid grief, sustaining pride, deep joy, and genuine despair are reactions not likely to be found within this scale.
It is unclear, then, whether an empathy deficit is at the core of psychopathy, or whether it is just one facet of a more general problem. One can explore this by looking at how well scores on the callous/lack of empathy item and certain related items are correlated with future bad behavior. In an extensive review of the literature, psychologist Jennifer Skeem and her colleagues note that these items are weak predictors of violence and criminality. The reason why the psychopath test has any predictive power at all is that it assesses past bad behavior—juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, parasitic lifestyle, and so on—as well as factors such as lack of inhibition and poor impulse control. To put it another way, you can remove the empathy question from the scale, and it would be about as good at picking out psychopaths.

What about aggressive behavior more generally? Are more aggressive people less empathetic? Even I, a skeptic, would imagine there is some substantive relationship between empathy and aggression, since presumably someone with a great deal of empathy would find it unpleasant to cause pain in others. But a recent review summarizing data from all available studies of the relationship between empathy and aggression reaches a different conclusion. The authors of “The (non)relation between empathy and aggression: Surprising results from a meta-analysis” report that only 1 percent of the variation in aggression is accounted for by empathy. This means that if you want to predict how aggressive a person is, and you have access to an enormous amount of information about that person, including psychiatric interviews, pen-and-paper tests, criminal records, and brain scans, the last thing you would bother to look at would be measures of the person’s empathy.

Finally, one decisive test of the low-empathy-makes-bad-people theory would be to study a group of people who lack empathy but also lack the other traits associated with psychopathy. Such individuals do exist. Baron-Cohen notes that people with Asperger syndrome and autism typically have low cognitive empathy—they struggle to understand the minds of others—and have low emotional empathy as well. (As with psychopaths, there is some controversy about whether they are incapable of empathy or choose not to deploy it.) Despite their empathy deficit, such people show no propensity for exploitation and violence. Indeed, they often have strong moral codes and are more likely to be victims of cruelty than perpetrators.

• • •

Am I saying that empathy is irrelevant or a corrosive influence on how we treat those around us? This would be too strong a conclusion. There are many studies that look at individual differences in empathy levels and correlate these levels with real-world behavior, such as willingness to help someone in need. Many of these studies are poorly done. They often measure empathy through self-report, so you don’t know whether you are assessing actual empathy as opposed to the degree to which people see themselves, or want to be seen, as empathetic. Furthermore, people who help others more may assume that they are empathetic, since people often make judgments about themselves by drawing conclusions from their own behavior.

Nonetheless, there is some evidence that being more empathetic influences how likely one is to help in certain circumstances. The relationship is often weak, and not all studies find it. Still, given laboratory findings showing that inducing empathy increases the likelihood of altruistic behaviors, it would be wrong to dismiss empathy’s role in our moral lives.

But we know that a high level of empathy does not make one a good person and that a low level does not make one a bad person. Being a good person likely is more related to distanced feelings of compassion and kindness, along with intelligence, self-control, and a sense of justice. Being a bad person has more to do with a lack of regard for others and an inability to control one’s appetites.

So how much empathy do we really want in ourselves, our children, our friends, and our society? If you want to answer that question, it helps to think about a quite different emotional response—anger.

Empathy and anger share a lot. Both emerge in early childhood and exist in every human culture. Both are present in other primates such as chimpanzees. Both are social. Unlike emotions such as fear and disgust, which are often elicited by experiences and inanimate beings, empathy and anger are mainly geared toward other people. And they are both moral. The identification that comes with empathy can motivate kind behavior toward others; anger is often a response to perceived unfairness, cruelty, and other immoral acts.

Buddhist texts are even more skeptical about anger than they are about empathy. They see it as destructive of the individual and the world at large. This is a valid concern. But if I could determine the emotional life of my child, I wouldn’t leave out the capacity for anger. The emotional force of anger can protect us and those we are close to from exploitation and predation. Someone who could never get angry would be the perfect victim. Anger can also be a prod to moral behavior more generally; many great moral heroes—Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance—have been individuals who let themselves get angry at situations that others were indifferent to.

But I would worry about the irrational, arbitrary, and self-destructive aspects of anger, so I wouldn’t wish that my child possess too much of it. And I would make sure to add plenty of intelligence, concern for others, and self-control. I would want to ensure that anger is modified, shaped, and directed by rational deliberation. It would occasionally spur action, but it would be subservient to the capacities for rationality and compassion. If we were all constituted in this way, if we could all put anger in its place, ours would be a kinder and better world.

That is how we should think about empathy too.

Artur Nilsson - A Non-Reductive Science of Personality, Character, and Well-Being Must Take the Person's Worldview into Account

This brief opinion paper from Frontiers in Psychology: Personality and Social Psychology offers a moderately integral model of personality assessment, one that incorporates worldviews, but more importantly, also includes inner sense (subjectivity) and experience, his version of non-reductive materialism. 

Interesting stuff.

Full Citation: 
Nilsson A. (2014). A non-reductive science of personality, character, and well-being must take the person's worldview into account. Frontiers in Psychology: Personality and Social Psychology; 5:961. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00961

A non-reductive science of personality, character, and well-being must take the person's worldview into account

Artur Nilsson
  • Department of Psychology, Lund University, Lund, Sweden
In his foundational work for personality psychology, Allport (1927, 1937) distinguished personality from character. Personality was, on Allport's account, a descriptive concept referring to a psycho-physical structure, whereas character was personality evaluated in accordance with moral norms. When he introduced the paradigmatic “lexical” method of deriving personality trait terms from the dictionary, he therefore sought to exclude all trait terms with ostensive normative content. This approach had a profound effect upon the field, and researchers are still today working on how to optimally purge personality of normative content (e.g., Bäckström et al., 2009; Pettersson and Turkheimer, 2010). Its appropriateness as a paradigm for the entire field of personality psychology can, however, be questioned (Kristjánsson, 2012; Nilsson, 2014). It is plausible that some personality characteristics particularly relevant to psychic illness, human flourishing, and moral behavior are intrinsically value-laden (Cloninger et al., 1993; Cawley et al., 2000; Peterson and Seligman, 2004).

I will focus on Cloninger's approach here, because he has, in addition to introducing an influential model of character, discussed the philosophical foundations of the study of character and well-being. For Cloninger (2004), character is not only value-laden; it refers to uniquely human aspects of personality representing “what people make of themselves intentionally” (p. 44), as contrasted with their animalistic temperament. He wants the science of character and well-being to transcend the dichotomy between materialist reductionism and Cartesian dualism, by taking the person's consciousness, agency, and processes of self-growth seriously while integrating this with knowledge about the human physical and biological constitution. Although I agree with this idea of having a non-reductive psychological science, I disagree with Cloninger about what it entails. I will therefore review Cloninger's (2004) approach from a philosophical perspective, in a critical and, hopefully, constructive way. I will defend a notion of non-reductive psychology based upon contemporary academic philosophy and argue that Cloninger's approach is not genuinely non-reductive. I will suggest that a non-reductive psychological science must take the person's worldview into account and argue that Cloninger's approach limits our understanding of human psychology by not considering the role of worldviews in the development of character and well-being.

Non-Reductive Materialism

Today, philosophers who seek to transcend the dichotomy between reductive materialism and Cartesian dualism generally adopt some version of non-reductive materialism (Davidson, 1963, 1970; Fodor, 1974; Searle, 1983, 1992; Chalmers, 1996), claiming that although all mental states and events are causally realized in the brain, there is not a particular type of brain state corresponding to each type of mental state. The reason for this is that we identify and individuate mental states in terms of a folk psychological language of “attitudes,” “beliefs,” “desires,” “emotions,” “goals,” etc., which is holistic, insofar as it describes mental states as partly constituted by their relations to each other and their neurophysiological realization and behavioral manifestation as therefore dependent upon the entire network of mental states. In other words, on non-reductive materialism, no particular belief, goal, desire, or other intentional state, let alone a more complex folk psychological concept such as “personality,” “character,” or “well-being,” can even in principle be isolated and reduced to neurophysiology or behavior, and these irreducible folk psychological concepts are crucial for understanding human psychology.

A key implication of non-reductive materialism is that human experiences and actions are imbued with meaning; to treat human beings as persons, rather than mere mechanical systems or animals, is to treat them as linguistic beings, who construct reasons and act upon them (Hacker, 2007), partly driven by needs to create and sustain meanings and to assuage fears and anxieties fueled by their uniquely human awareness of their existential condition (Nilsson, 2013). Although meaning-making is today studied in such different fields as the psychology of adaptation and well-being (Janoff-Bulman, 1992; Wong, 2012), social psychology (Greenberg et al., 1986; Heine et al., 2006), and neuropsychology (Gazzaniga, 2005), researchers rarely take into consideration the fact that meaning is constructed within a worldview—the person's most basic beliefs, values, constructs, and scripts for understanding, evaluating, and acting upon reality, which ground the network within which more specific beliefs, goals, intentions, etc., are embedded. A person necessarily lives through a worldview—s/he can only, for example, act, morally or immorally, upon a worldview, and experience well-being, in its distinctly human form, through a worldview. A non-reductive psychological science must therefore treat the person's worldview as an aspect of personality in its own right, not reducible to behavioral or mental regularities (i.e., traits; Nilsson, 2014). Although personalists (Allport, 1937; Stern, 1938; Mounier, 1952; Lamiell, 1987), narrative psychologists (Tomkins, 1965, 1979; McAdams, 1992, 2008), and construct psychologists (Kelly, 1955; Little, 2005) have contributed to such an endeavor, worldviews do not receive the attention they deserve in contemporary psychology (Koltko-Rivera, 2004; Nilsson, 2013, 2014).

Cloninger's Transcendentalism

Cloninger's (2004) approach instead merges elements of folk spirituality (cf. Forman, 2004), Eastern thought, Hegelian metaphysics, and quantum physics. He suggests that a person's consciousness can be developed, through a process catalyzed by meditation, reflection, and contemplation, toward increasing self-awareness, wisdom, goodness, and well-being. In the final, self-transcendent stage, the person is freed of all “dualistic” thought of body, mind, and spirit as separate and recognizes that “the individual mind is like a node in a universal Internet of consciousness” (p. 36), thereby attaining “coherence” of body, mind, and spirit, unconditional well-being, potential access to other minds, and “direct self-aware perception of what is real and true without misunderstanding as a result of preconceptions, prejudices, fears, desires, and conflicts” (p. 325). Cloninger (2004) also draws parallels between self-transcendent consciousness and quantum phenomena, including the impossibility of precisely determining the state and location of quantum particles (“non-locality”) and the Higgs field within which particles acquire mass, and he claims, furthermore, that the unpredictability (“non-causality”) of quantum physical events is “another way of talking about freedom” (p. 73) and that “the thought of gifted people involves intuitive leaps or quantum jumps, not deductive algorithms” (p. 65; cf. Capra, 1975).

Cloninger (2004, p. 317) makes clear that what he is proposing is not just a psychological theory, but also a philosophy of science:
The science of well-being is founded on the understanding that there is an indissoluble unity to all that is or can be. The universal unity of being is recognized widely as an empirical fact, as well as an essential organizing principle for any adequate science [..] the universal unity of being is the only viewpoint consistent with any coherent and testable science.
This passage is puzzling insofar as it describes the postulated unity of being both as empirical fact, which implies that it is open to empirical refutation, and as essential organizing principle constitutive of research in this area, which implies that it is, in Quine's (1953) terminology, close to the center of the scientific field and therefore not easily changed. Given that Cloninger (2004) suggests that recognition of the unity of being-thesis is ultimately intuitive and not amenable to rational argumentation or objective test, and that its critics lack self-awareness, this thesis is more properly treated as a presupposition and interpretive framework than as an empirical fact (Popper, 1959).

But whether this is an appropriate, non-reductive foundation for the study of persons is questionable. On the non-reductive account I am proposing, what is essential is that we take the person's subjective experiences and their meanings seriously, in psychological terms, treating them as real and irreducible; not that we assume that special forms of experience convey true insight into the nature of reality. One problem with Cloninger's approach is precisely that it does not give meaning-making the role that it deserves in personality measurement and explanation of experience and action. Cloninger (2004) offers parallels to quantum physics rather than an account of reason-based explanation (Davidson, 1963; Searle, 1983) and Cloninger et al. (1993) measure character with traditional trait-type items which focus on typical behaviors and experiences, rather than worldview-type items which ask persons about their most basic beliefs, values, goals, and so on (Nilsson, 2014). Cloninger's use of quantum physics to describe the mind is, furthermore, whether interpreted as an “analogy” (p. 65) or as an explanation of “actual” processes underlying self-aware consciousness (p. 328), difficult to reconcile with non-reductive materialism. Although it is conceivable that the hitherto unidentified mechanisms through which the brain causes consciousness, agency, and certain qualitative feels operate at the quantum level (Chalmers, 1996; Searle, 1997), the folk psychological concepts that render our experiences and actions meaningful and agentic are, because of their logical holism, as irreducible to quantum physics as to classical physics, and we have little reason to assume that the causes of conscious experiences are isomorphic with their qualitative feels (Stenger, 1993; cf. Brown et al., 2013). Similar to this, Cloninger's (p. 38) invocation of Allport's definition of personality as a “psycho-physical system” is inconsistent with non-reductive materialism, insofar as it is understood as implying that personality can be reduced to a neuro-physiological causal system (Nilsson, 2013). Finally, the Hegelian monist metaphysics Cloninger (2004) draws upon is rejected today even by Hegelians. For example, Pippin (1989, p. 4)—one of several philosophers reinterpreting Hegel in non-metaphysical terms in order to rehabilitate his philosophy—thinks that the “metaphysical monist or speculative, contradiction-embracing logician [..] is not the historically influential Hegel.”

Implications for Research

Cloninger et al. (1993) model divides character into: (1) self-directedness, or agency, which incorporates acting deliberatively on personal goals and values, taking responsibility for actions, and developing resources for goal pursuit and self-acceptance, (2) cooperativeness, or communion, which incorporates compassion, empathy, helpfulness, acceptance of others, and acting on moral principles rather than self-interest, and (3) self-transcendence, which incorporates a sense of unity underlying the universe and connecting the self with the world around it, intuitive apprehension of relationships that cannot be explained rationally or observed objectively, and experiences of flow, absorption, and self-forgetfulness. These aspects of character correspond, respectively, to the person's relation to the self, to others, and to the universe. As such, they undoubtedly refer to basic aspects of our intentional engagement with the world. But the model does not take different worldviews into account. Self-transcendence, in particular, appears conflated with spiritual self-transcendence—that is, self-transcendence through spirituality. Self-transcendence, in a more general sense, can be understood as the pursuit of meaning and identity through participation in, and selfless contribution to, something larger than the self, whether this is a divine or spiritual reality, a community of persons or sentient beings, or an ideological ideal (Schwartz, 1992; MacDonald et al., 1998; Koltko-Rivera, 2004). It requires only that the person is connected to the outside world through intentional directedness at, and engagement with, that world; it does not require an actual physical or spiritual connection between the person and that toward which s/he directs him-/herself.

More generally, I suggest that character can be understood in terms of the interaction between the three proposed dimensions and the person's worldview, and that researchers therefore need to investigate how different worldviews facilitate and inhibit the development of character. Because character is an intrinsically normative concept, what counts as character is partly an empirical question—character is what turns out to produce desirable psychological, moral, and social consequences. We might ask, for example, if, and if so how, different worldviews can be reconciled with ethical self-transcendence, selfless love, genuine happiness, tolerance, creativity, autonomy, and experiences of wonder, beauty, and awe. It is, I suggest, unlikely that there is one ultimate path of character development suitable for all persons. Cloninger's (2004, p. 29) own observation that “outstanding exponents of positive philosophy have often had limited success in helping their followers develop coherence” is true, I suggest, partly because neither worldview nor the development of character and well-being is a one-size-fits-all. By considering the full potential range of personalities emerging from the diversity of human worldviews, we can, I contend, better understand and encourage the development of character and well-being, thus potentially harnessing the full positive potentials of humanity for cultural and social progress (cf. Cloninger, 2004, 2008, 2013).

Conflict of Interest Statement

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

References at the Frontiers site

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Metaintegral Academy - Vital Skills for Thriving in a Wild, Complex World: A Free Online Mini-Course for Change Leaders

Passing this along for those who may be interested - The topic is interesting and there are some good people presenting.
We are excited to announce a new—free—four-session online course:

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It’s a truism that the world and its problems are growing more complex every day. It’s also true that effective solutions aren’t keeping pace and that it’s harder than ever for change leaders to have impact. Ominously, the gap is widening. What does this portend for the future?

Since its founding in 2011, MetaIntegral Academy has devoted itself to this question with a big YES. Yes to the perspective that our future is bright. Yes to our ability to create solutions to our challenges. And yes to our ability to nurture future leaders and new leadership capacities.

MetaIntegral Academy creates programs that help change leaders unleashed their deeper potentials and in order to really become the change they want to see in the world. As a result of the success of our EPC program we have been looking for ways to share some of its essence with a wider audience. We've had many requests to share this material so we came up with this mini-course as a way of doing just that.

Here’s a brief description of the course modules:
  1. Power and Grace: Using Complexity Thinking and Intuitive Inquiry to Navigate These Turbulent Times, with Barrett C. Brown
  2. Thriving in the Flow through Action Inquiry, with Jesse McKay and Danielle Conroy
  3. From Taking a Stand to Inspiring Shared Action: The Art of Integral Enrollment, with Sean Esbjörn-Hargens and Dana Carman
  4. Integration: Putting It All Together to Thrive in a Wild, Complex World, with faculty from Modules 1-3. This course is for change leaders at any level—local, national, global—who want to enact a vision, express their unique talents more effectively, and enact their potential to do more and be more.
For course details and to register for free, click here.

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