Notes on Tetlock and Gardner’s Superforecasting

Notes on Tetlock and Gardner’s Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction.

Good book. A bit too journalisty for me at points but overall a very good balance of academic and popular. As is often the case, you could probably distill the majority of it down to ten pages (plus appendix on psychology). At the same time, the authors walk through complex ideas, skilfully illustrate the ideas with anecdotes and stories and retain the nuance of the underlying subject matter.

The most valuable part of the book for me and Life Itself is its concrete analytical insights into open-mindedness and good judgment, especially on the psychology/being side (as opposed to, say, numeracy—though even numeracy is interpreted into its probabilistic and then psychological aspects—see below re. “fate questionnaire”).

Key takeaways

  • There are people who are (very) good forecasters regarding political and world events. These are the “superforecasters” of the book’s title. But they aren’t the political “experts” you see on TV or in the newspapers.
    • These “superforecasters” are statistically well above average. If an ordinary predictor has 20/20 vision, then some superforecasters have 100/20 vision.
    • These superforecasters don’t have immediately-distinctive traits: they are ordinary people, though often pretty smart and curious. Most of the book is dedicated to examining what makes them good and to what extent training makes a difference.
    • This book follows up, complements and contrasts with Tetlock’s previous and more academic book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (2005), which found that most political experts did not perform that much better than chance – “monkeys throwing darts” (though, to be fair, quite sophisticated monkeys).
  • The book is based on a recent, large-scale research study by Tetlock that was sponsored by IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency – like DARPA but for CIA). They recruited large numbers of ordinary people and then tried them out on lots of predictions. They also looked at whether training or organising participants into teams helped or not.
  • The rest of the book looks into what makes these superforecasters good. Rough answers:
    • Reasonably smart, with decent basic statistical skills: understand and apply base rates, doing rough Bayesian updating.
    • Do lots of updating: people who were good updated a lot (but not too much).
    • Good psych profile: open-minded, curious, etc.

Chapter Overviews

  1. An Optimistic Skeptic: sets out original skeptic background from reception of Expert Political Judgment (2005) and explains how Tetlock always had a more nuanced view (there were some exceptional people even in the original sample). Foxes vs hedgehogs.
  2. Illusions of Knowledge: why we think we are better than we are and the flaws of System 1.
  3. Keeping Score: how do you track predictive accuracy and what does it mean to be good at forecasting? Introduction to calibration vs discrimination plus the “Brier Score”, which is quadratic error. Brier score = Sum of square error between prediction probability and actual outcome (e.g. if predict rain with probability 60% and it rains then score is 0.16 (1-0.6 squared) and if it does not my score is 0.36 (0-0.4 squared).
  4. Superforecasters (SFs): defining who they are. They are people who are exceptionally good at forecasting – with ‘exceptionally good’ being statistically definable.
  5. Supersmart: are they super intelligent? No, but they are generally reasonably smart.
  6. Superquants: are the SFs just math geniuses? No, but they are all numerate and they have a good understanding of basic probability, including base rates etc. (something most of us don’t have).
  7. Supernewsjunkies: are SFs just good because they consume lots of information? Yes and no. It’s the quality and variety of what they consume; many of the good forecasters did not spend that much time reading material.
  8. Perpetual Beta: good forecasters keep updating (with new info) and questioning their forecasts.
  9. Superteams: does putting people in teams help and how do they function? Does averaging scores help (or “extremising”)? Answer: yes, teams help, especially in the case of certain superforecasters. Team dynamics matter, as does having someone who coordinates and manages well. Extremising helps a lot and is most valuable for teams that are less aligned.
  10. The Leader’s Dilemma: the qualities of good forecasters–“foxy”, not too confident, open to other options, etc.–which contrasts with the supposed desirable qualities of leaders who should be decisive, bold, confident etc. Plus, you need to allow the teams to self-organize. You can combine the strong pursuit of what you currently think with constant open-mindedness to being wrong (though this can’t be easy!). Moreover, decentralized, delegated leadership, flattish management etc. work. They use the nice example of the German military pre-WWII as a great example of an organization where leadership was delegated down the hierarchy and initiative expected: “The command principle of…Auftragstaktik blended strategic coherence and decentralized decision making with a simple principle: commanders were to tell subordinates what their goal is but not how to achieve it”
  11. Are They Really So Super?
  12. What’s Next?
  13. Epilogue

The chapters that stood out as most useful are discussed in more detail below.

Chapter 3 – Expert Political Judgment

In the mid-1980s Tetlock began a research programme to learn what sets the best forecasters apart. He recruited experts whose livelihoods involved analyzing political and economic trends and events. The experts made a total of roughly twenty-eight thousand predictions between them. The final results appeared in 2005.

If you didn’t know the punch line of EPJ before you read this book, you do now: the average expert was roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee. But as students are warned in introductory statistics classes, averages can obscure.


In the EPJ results, there were two statistically distinguishable groups of experts. The first failed to do better than random guessing, and in their longer-range forecasts even managed to lose to the chimp. The second group beat the chimp, though not by a wide margin, and they still had plenty of reason to be humble. Indeed, they only barely beat simple algorithms like “always predict no change” or “predict the recent rate of change.” Still, however modest their foresight was, they had some.

So why did one group do better than the other? It wasn’t whether they had PhDs or access to classified information. Nor was it what they thought—whether they were liberals or conservatives, optimists or pessimists. The critical factor was how they thought.

One group tended to organize their thinking around Big Ideas, although they didn’t agree on which Big Ideas were true or false. Some were environmental doomsters (“We’re running out of everything”); others were cornucopian boomsters (“We can find cost-effective substitutes for everything”). Some were socialists (who favored state control of the commanding heights of the economy); others were free-market fundamentalists (who wanted to minimize regulation). As ideologically diverse as they were, they were united by the fact that their thinking was so ideological. They sought to squeeze complex problems into the preferred cause-effect templates and treated what did not fit as irrelevant distractions. Allergic to wishy-washy answers, they kept pushing their analyses to the limit (and then some), using terms like “furthermore” and “moreover” while piling up reasons why they were right and others wrong. As a result, they were unusually confident and likelier to declare things “impossible” or “certain.” Committed to their conclusions, they were reluctant to change their minds even when their predictions clearly failed. They would tell us, “Just wait.”

The other group consisted of more pragmatic experts who drew on many analytical tools, with the choice of tool hinging on the particular problem they faced. These experts gathered as much information from as many sources as they could. When thinking, they often shifted mental gears, sprinkling their speech with transition markers such as “however,” “but,” “although,” and “on the other hand.” They talked about possibilities and probabilities, not certainties. And while no one likes to say “I was wrong,” these experts more readily admitted it and changed their minds.


I dubbed the Big Idea experts “hedgehogs” and the more eclectic experts “foxes.”

Foxes beat hedgehogs. And the foxes didn’t just win by acting like chickens, playing it safe with 60% and 70% forecasts where hedgehogs boldly went with 90% and 100%. Foxes beat hedgehogs on both calibration and resolution. Foxes had real foresight. Hedgehogs didn’t.


Now look at how foxes approach forecasting. They deploy not one analytical idea but many and seek out information not from one source but many. Then they synthesize it all into a single conclusion. In a word, they aggregate. They may be individuals working alone, but what they do is, in principle, no different from what Galton’s crowd did. They integrate perspectives and the information contained within them. The only real difference is that the process occurs within one skull.

Chapter 5 – Supersmart?

Superforecasters seek diverse ideas and challenges to their beliefs.

But ultimately, as with intelligence, this has less to do with traits someone possesses and more to do with behavior. A brilliant puzzle solver may have the raw material for forecasting, but if he doesn’t also have an appetite for questioning basic, emotionally-charged beliefs, he will often be at a disadvantage relative to a less intelligent person who has a greater capacity for self-critical thinking. It’s not your raw crunching power that matters most. It’s what you do with it.

Look at Doug Lorch. His natural inclination is obvious. But he doesn’t assume it will see him through. He cultivates it. Doug knows that when people read for pleasure they naturally gravitate to the like-minded. So he created a database containing hundreds of information sources—from the New York Times to obscure blogs—that are tagged by their ideological orientation, subject matter, and geographical origin, then wrote a program that selects what he should read next using criteria that emphasize diversity. Thanks to Doug’s simple invention, he is sure to constantly encounter different perspectives. Doug is not merely open-minded. He is actively open-minded. Active open-mindedness (AOM) is a concept coined by the psychologist Jonathan Baron, who has an office next to mine at the University of Pennsylvania. Baron’s test for AOM asks whether you agree or disagree with statements like:

– People should take into consideration evidence that goes against their beliefs.

– It is more useful to pay attention to those who disagree with you than to pay attention to those who agree.

– Changing your mind is a sign of weakness.

– Intuition is the best guide in making decisions.

– It is important to persevere in your beliefs even when evidence is brought to bear against them.

Quite predictably, superforecasters score highly on Baron’s test. But more importantly, superforecasters illustrate the concept. They walk the talk.

Chapter 6 – Superquants?

Superforecasters think probabilistically, not fatalistically.

A probabilistic thinker will be less distracted by “why” questions and focus on “how.” This is no semantic quibble. “Why?” directs us to metaphysics; “How?” sticks with physics. The probabilistic thinker would say, “Yes, it was extremely improbable that I would meet my partner that night, but I had to be somewhere and she had to be somewhere and happily for us our somewheres coincided.” The economist and Nobel laureate Robert Shiller tells the story of how Henry Ford decided to hire workers at the then-astonishingly high rate of $5 a day, which convinced both his grandfathers to move to Detroit to work for Ford. If someone had made one of his grandfathers a better job offer, if one of his grandfathers had been kicked in the head by a horse, if someone had convinced Ford he was crazy to pay $5 a day…if an almost infinite number of events had turned out differently, Robert Shiller would not have been born. But rather than see fate in his improbable existence, Shiller repeats the story as an illustration of how radically indeterminate the future is. “You tend to believe that history played out in a logical sort of sense, that people ought to have foreseen, but it’s not like that,” he told me. “It’s an illusion of hindsight.”

Even in the face of tragedy, the probabilistic thinker will say, “Yes, there was an almost infinite number of paths that events could have taken, and it was incredibly unlikely that events would take the path that ended in my child’s death. But they had to take a path and that’s the one they took. That’s all there is to it.” In Kahneman’s terms, probabilistic thinkers take the outside view toward even profoundly identity-defining events, seeing them as quasi-random draws from distributions of once-possible worlds.

Or, in Kurt Vonnegut’s terms, “Why me? Why not me?”

If it’s true that probabilistic thinking is essential to accurate forecasting, and it-was-meant-to-happen thinking undermines probabilistic thinking, we should expect superforecasters to be much less inclined to see things as fated. To test this, we probed their reactions to pro-fate statements like these:

– Events unfold according to God’s plan.

– Everything happens for a reason.

– There are no accidents or coincidences.

We also asked them about pro-probability statements like these:

Nothing is inevitable

Even major events like World War II or 9/11 could have turned out very differently.

Randomness is often a factor in our personal lives.

We put the same questions to regular volunteer forecasters, undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania, and a broad cross section of adult Americans. On a 9-point “fate score,” where 1 is total rejection of it-was-meant-to-happen thinking and 9 is a complete embrace of it, the mean score of adult Americans fell in the middle of the scale. The Penn undergrads were a little lower. The regular forecasters were a little lower still. And the superforecasters got the lowest score of all, firmly on the rejection-of-fate side.

For both the superforecasters and the regulars, we also compared individual fate scores with Brier scores and found a significant correlation—meaning the more a forecaster inclined toward it-was-meant-to-happen thinking, the less accurate her forecasts were. Or, put more positively, the more a forecaster embraced probabilistic thinking, the more accurate she was.

So finding meaning in events is positively correlated with well-being but negatively correlated with foresight. That sets up a depressing possibility: Is misery the price of accuracy?

I don’t know. But this book is not about how to be happy. It’s about how to be accurate, and the superforecasters show that probabilistic thinking is essential for that. I’ll leave the existential issues to others.

Chapter 7 – Supernewsjunkies?

The beliefs which are connected to our egos and identities are the most difficult to change in light of contradictory evidence.

But not all disturbances are equal. Remember that Keynes quotation about changing your mind in light of changed facts? It’s cited in countless books, including one written by me and another by my coauthor. Google it and you will find it’s all over the Internet. Of the many famous things Keynes said it’s probably the most famous. But while researching this book, I tried to track it to its source and failed. Instead, I found a post by a Wall Street Journal blogger, which said that no one has ever discovered its provenance and the two leading experts on Keynes think it is apocryphal. In light of these facts, and in the spirit of what Keynes apparently never said, I concluded that I was wrong. And I have now confessed to the world. Was that hard? Not really. Many smart people made the same mistake, so it’s not embarrassing to own up to it. The quotation wasn’t central to my work and being right about it wasn’t part of my identity.

But if I had staked my career on that quotation, my reaction might have been less casual. Social psychologists have long known that getting people to publicly commit to a belief is a great way to freeze it in place, making it resistant to change. The stronger the commitment, the greater the resistance.

Jean-Pierre Beugoms is a superforecaster who prides himself on his willingness “to change my opinions a lot faster than my other teammates,” but he also noted “it is a challenge, I’ll admit that, especially if it’s a question that I have a certain investment in.” For Beugoms, that means military questions. He is a graduate of West Point who is writing his PhD dissertation on American military history. “I feel like I should be doing better than most [on military questions]. So if I realize that I’m wrong, I might spend a few days in denial about it before I critique myself.”

Commitment can come in many forms, but a useful way to think of it is to visualize the children’s game Jenga, which starts with building blocks stacked one on top of another to form a little tower. Players take turns removing building blocks until someone removes the block that topples the tower. Our beliefs about ourselves and the world are built on each other in a Jenga-like fashion. My belief that Keynes said “When the facts change, I change my mind” was a block sitting at the apex. It supported nothing else, so I could easily pick it up and toss it without disturbing other blocks. But when Jean-Pierre makes a forecast in his specialty, that block is lower in the structure, sitting next to a block of self-perception, near the tower’s core. So it’s a lot harder to pull that block out without upsetting other blocks— which makes Jean-Pierre reluctant to tamper with it.

The Yale professor Dan Kahan has done much research showing that our judgments about risks—Does gun control make us safer or put us in danger?—are driven less by a careful weighing of evidence than by our identities, which is why people’s views on gun control often correlate with their views on climate change, even though the two issues have no logical connection to each other. Psycho-logic trumps logic. And when Kahan asks people who feel strongly that gun control increases risk, or diminishes it, to imagine conclusive evidence that shows they are wrong, and then asks if they would change their position if that evidence were handed to them, they typically say no. That belief block is holding up a lot of others. Take it out and you risk chaos, so many people refuse to even imagine it.

When a block is at the very base of the tower, there’s no way to remove it without bringing everything crashing down. This extreme commitment leads to extreme reluctance to admit error, which explains why the men responsible for imprisoning 112,000 innocent people could be so dogged in their belief that the threat of sabotage was severe. Their commitment was massive. Warren was, deep down, a civil libertarian. Admitting to himself that he had unjustly imprisoned 112,000 people would have taken a sledgehammer to his mental tower.

This suggests that superforecasters may have a surprising advantage: they’re not experts or professionals, so they have little ego invested in each forecast. Except in rare circumstances—when Jean-Pierre Beugoms answers military questions, for example—they aren’t deeply committed to their judgments, which makes it easier to admit when a forecast is offtrack and adjust. This isn’t to say that superforecasters have zero ego investment. They care about their reputations among their teammates. And if “superforecaster” becomes part of their self-concept, their commitment will grow fast. But still, the self-esteem stakes are far less than those for career CIA analysts or acclaimed pundits with their reputations on the line. And that helps them avoid underreaction when new evidence calls for updating beliefs.

Chapter 8 – Perpetual Beta

We have learned a lot about superforecasters, from their lives to their test scores to their work habits. Taking stock, we can now sketch a rough composite portrait of the modal superforecaster.

In philosophic outlook, they tend to be:

CAUTIOUS: Nothing is certain

HUMBLE: Reality is infinitely complex

NONDETERMINISTIC: What happens is not meant to be and does not have to happen

In their abilities and thinking styles, they tend to be:

ACTIVELY OPEN-MINDED: Beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be protected

INTELLIGENT AND KNOWLEDGEABLE, WITH A “NEED FOR COGNITION”: Intellectually curious, enjoy puzzles and mental challenges

REFLECTIVE: Introspective and self-critical

NUMERATE: Comfortable with numbers

In their methods of forecasting they tend to be:

PRAGMATIC: Not wedded to any idea or agenda

ANALYTICAL: Capable of stepping back from the tip-of-your-nose perspective and considering other views

DRAGONFLY-EYED: Value diverse views and synthesize them into their own

PROBABILISTIC: Judge using many grades of maybe

THOUGHTFUL UPDATERS: When facts change, they change their minds

GOOD INTUITIVE PSYCHOLOGISTS: Aware of the value of checking thinking for cognitive and emotional biases

In their work ethic, they tend to have:

A GROWTH MINDSET: Believe it’s possible to get better

GRIT: Determined to keep at it however long it takes

I paint with a broad brush here. Not every attribute is equally important. The strongest predictor of rising into the ranks of superforecasters is perpetual beta, the degree to which one is committed to belief updating and self-improvement. It is roughly three times as powerful a predictor as its closest rival, intelligence. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, superforecasting appears to be roughly 75% perspiration, 25% inspiration.

And not every superforecaster has every attribute. There are many paths to success and many ways to compensate for a deficit in one area with strength in another. The predictive power of perpetual beta does suggest, though, that no matter how high one’s IQ it is difficult to compensate for lack of dedication to the personal project of “growing one’s synapses.”

All that said, there is another element that is missing entirely from the sketch: other people. In our private lives and our workplaces, we seldom make judgments about the future entirely in isolation. We are a social species. We decide together. This raises an important question.

What happens when superforecasters work in groups?

Chapter 9 – Superteams

At the end of the year, the results were unequivocal: on average, teams were 23% more accurate than individuals.

Teams created a culture of constructive criticism.

“There was a lot of what I’ll call dancing around,” recalled Marty Rosenthal of his first year on a team. People would disagree with someone’s assessment, and want to test it, but they were too afraid of giving offense to just come out and say what they were thinking. So they would “couch it in all these careful words,” circling around, hoping the point would be made without their having to make it.

Experience helped. Seeing this “dancing around,” people realized that excessive politeness was hindering the critical examination of views, so they made special efforts to assure others that criticism was welcome. “Everybody has said, ‘I want push-back from you if you see something I don’t,’” said Rosenthal. That made a difference. So did offering thanks for constructive criticism. Gradually, the dancing around diminished.

The teams were each comprised of 12 superforecasters, with a nucleus of members who did most of the work.

Most teams have a nucleus of five or six members who do most of the work. Within that core, we might expect to see a division of labor that reduces the amount of effort any one person needs to invest in the task, at least if he or she approached forecasting as work, not play. But we saw the opposite on the best teams: workloads were divided, but as commitment grew, so did the amount of effort forecasters put into it. Being on the team was “tons more work,” Elaine said. But she didn’t mind. She found it far more stimulating than working by herself. “You could be supporting each other, or helping each other, or building on ideas,” she said. “It was a rush.”

Superteams outperformed prediction markets under experimental conditions.

We put that proposition to the test by randomly assigning regular forecasters to one of three experimental conditions. Some worked alone. Others worked in teams. And some were traders in prediction markets run by companies such as Inkling and Lumenogic. Of course, after year 1—when the value of teams was resoundingly demonstrated—nobody expected forecasters working alone to compete at the level of teams or prediction markets, so we combined all their forecasts and calculated the unweighted average to get the “wisdom of the crowd.” And of course we had one more competitor: superteams.

The results were clear-cut each year. Teams of ordinary forecasters beat the wisdom of the crowd by about 10%. Prediction markets beat ordinary teams by about 20%. And superteams beat prediction markets by 15% to 30%.

I can already hear the protests from my colleagues in finance that the only reason the superteams beat the prediction markets was that our markets lacked liquidity: real money wasn’t at stake and we didn’t have a critical mass of traders. They may be right. It is a testable idea, and one worth testing. It’s also important to recognize that while superteams beat prediction markets, prediction markets did a pretty good job of forecasting complex global events.

How did superteams do so well? By avoiding the extremes of groupthink and Internet flame wars. And by fostering minicultures that encouraged people to challenge each other respectfully, admit ignorance, and request help. In key ways, superteams resembled the best surgical teams identified by Harvard’s Amy Edmondson, in which the nurse doesn’t hesitate to tell the surgeon he left a sponge behind the pancreas because she knows it is “psychologically safe” to correct higher-ups. Edmondson’s best teams had a shared purpose. So did our superteams. One sign of that was linguistic: they said “our” more than “my.”

A team like that should promote the sort of actively open-minded thinking that is so critical to accurate forecasting, as we saw in chapter 5. So just as we surveyed individuals to test their active open-mindedness (AOM), we surveyed teams to probe their attitudes toward the group and patterns of interaction within the group—that is, we tested the team’s AOM. As expected, we found a correlation between a team’s AOM and its accuracy. Little surprise there. But what makes a team more or less actively open-minded? You might think it’s the individuals on the team. Put high AOM people in a team and you’ll get a high-AOM team; put lower-AOM people in a team and you’ll get a lower-AOM team. Not so, as it turns out. Teams were not merely the sum of their parts. How the group thinks collectively is an emergent property of the group itself, a property of communication patterns among group members, not just the thought processes inside each member. A group of open-minded people who don’t care about one another will be less than the sum of its open-minded parts. A group of opinionated people who engage one another in pursuit of the truth will be more than the sum of its opinionated parts [emphasis added].

Winning teams fostered a culture of sharing.

All this brings us to the final feature of winning teams: the fostering of a culture of sharing. My Wharton colleague Adam Grant categorizes people as “givers,” “matchers,” and “takers.” Givers are those who contribute more to others than they receive in return; matchers give as much as they get; takers give less than they take. Cynics might say that giver is a polite word for chump. After all, anyone inclined to freeload will happily take what they give and return nothing, leaving the giver worse off than if he weren’t so generous. But Grant’s research shows that the prosocial example of the giver can improve the behavior of others, which helps everyone, including the giver—which explains why Grant has found that givers tend to come out on top.

Marty Rosenthal is a giver. He wasn’t indiscriminately generous with his time and effort. He was generous in a deliberate effort to change the behavior of others for the benefit of all. Although Marty didn’t know Grant’s work, when I described it to him, he said, “You got it.” There are lots more givers on the superteams. Doug Lorch distributed programming tools, which got others thinking about creating and sharing their own.

Hold the excitement.

But let’s not take this too far. A busy executive might think “I want some of those” and imagine the recipe is straightforward: shop for top performers, marinate them in collaborative teams, strain out the groupthink, sprinkle in some givers, and wait for the smart decisions and money to start flowing. Sadly, it isn’t that simple. Replicating this in an existing organization with real employees would be a challenge. Singling out people for “super” status may be divisive and transferring people into cross-functional teams can be disruptive. And there’s no guarantee of results. There were eccentric exceptions to the tendencies outlined above, such as the few teams who were not mutually supportive but who nonetheless did well. One of the best superforecasters even refused to leave comments for his teammates, saying he didn’t want to risk groupthink.

This is the messy world of psychological research. Solid conclusions take time and this work, particularly on superteams, is in its infancy. There are many questions we have only begun to explore

Chapter 12 – What’s Next?

Collaboration and depolarization of debate are the way forward.

Whether superforecasters can outpredict Friedman is both unknown and, for present purposes, beside the point. Superforecasters and superquestioners need to acknowledge each other’s complementary strengths, not dwell on each other’s alleged weaknesses. Friedman poses provocative questions that superforecasters should use to sharpen their foresight; superforecasters generate well-calibrated answers that superquestioners should use to fine-tune and occasionally overhaul their mental models of reality. The “Tom versus Bill” frame with which we started the book is our final false dichotomy. We need a Tom-Bill symbiosis. That’s a tall order. But there’s a much bigger collaboration I’d like to see. It would be the Holy Grail of my research program: using forecasting tournaments to depolarize unnecessarily polarized policy debates and make us collectively smarter.


There were attempts to extract lessons from events during those years, but they mostly involved brute force. Hammering opponents both for their forecasting failures and for not acknowledging them was a standard theme in the columns of Paul Krugman, whose Nobel Prize in economics and New York Times bully pulpit made him the most prominent Keynesian. Krugman’s opponents hammered back. Niall Ferguson wrote a three-part catalog of Krugman’s alleged failures. Back and forth it went, with each side poring over the other’s forecasts, looking for failures, deflecting attacks, and leveling accusations. For fans of one side or the other, it may have been thrilling. For those who hope that we can become collectively wiser, it was a bewildering fracas that looked less like a debate between great minds and more like a food fight between rival fraternities. These are accomplished people debating pressing issues, but nobody seems to have learned anything beyond how to defend their original position.

We can do better. Remember the “adversarial collaboration” between Daniel Kahneman and Gary Klein? These two psychologists won acclaim by developing apparently contradictory schools of thought, making each man a threat to the legacy of the other. But they were committed to playing by scientific ground rules, so they got together to discuss why they had such different views and how they could be reconciled. Something similar could, in principle, be done in forecasting.


Extremizing basically means scaling probability estimates up to 1 and down to 0, because individual forecasts bias down/up at those points but the mean need not…

From the Edge masterclass with Philip Tetlock

From the book:

That’s the thinking behind the extremizing algorithm I mentioned in chapter 4. It works superbly, but its effectiveness depends on diversity. A team with zero diversity—its members are clones and everyone knows everything that everyone else knows—should not be extremized at all. Of course no team matches that description. But some teams are good at sharing information and that reduces diversity somewhat. Superforecaster teams were like that, which is why extremizing didn’t help them much. But regular forecasting teams weren’t as good at sharing information. As a result, we got major gains when we extremized them. Indeed, extremizing gave regular forecaster teams a big enough boost to pass some superteams, and extremizing a large pool of regular forecasters produced, as we saw earlier, tournament-winning results.

Tetlock et al. published a paper on this shortly before the publication of Superforecasting.

When aggregating the probability estimates of many individuals to form a consensus probability estimate of an uncertain future event, it is common to combine them using a simple weighted average. Such aggregated probabilities correspond more closely to the real world if they are transformed by pushing them closer to 0 or 1. We explain the need for such transformations in terms of two distorting factors: The first factor is the compression of the probability scale at the two ends, so that random error tends to push the average probability toward 0.5. This effect does not occur for the median forecast, or, arguably, for the mean of the log odds of individual forecasts. The second factor—which affects mean, median, and mean of log odds—is the result of forecasters taking into account their individual ignorance of the total body of information available. Individual confidence in the direction of a probability judgment (high/low) thus fails to take into account the wisdom of crowds that results from combining different evidence available to different judges. We show that the same transformation function can approximately eliminate both distorting effects with different parameters for the mean and the median. And we show how, in principle, use of the median can help distinguish the two effects.

Appendix – Ten Commandments for Aspiring Superforecasters

(1) Triage.

Focus on questions where your hard work is likely to pay off. Don’t waste time either on easy “clocklike” questions (where simple rules of thumb can get you close to the right answer) or on impenetrable “cloud-like” questions (where even fancy statistical models can’t beat the dart-throwing chimp). Concentrate on questions in the Goldilocks zone of difficulty, where effort pays off the most.

For instance, “Who will win the presidential election, twelve years out, in 2028?” is impossible to forecast now. Don’t even try. Could you have predicted in 1940 the winner of the election, twelve years out, in 1952? If you think you could have known it would be a then-unknown colonel in the United States Army, Dwight Eisenhower, you may be afflicted by one of the worst cases of hindsight bias ever documented by psychologists.

Of course, triage judgment calls get harder as we come closer to home. How much justifiable confidence can we place in March 2015 on who will win the 2016 election? The short answer is not a lot but still a lot more than we can for the election in 2028. We can at least narrow the 2016 field to a small set of plausible contenders, which is a lot better than the vast set of unknown (Eisenhower-ish) possibilities lurking in 2028.

Certain classes of outcomes have well-deserved reputations for being radically unpredictable (e.g., oil prices, currency markets). But we usually don’t discover how unpredictable outcomes are until we have spun our wheels for a while trying to gain analytical traction. Bear in mind the two basic errors it is possible to make here. We could fail to try to predict the potentially predictable or we could waste our time trying to predict the unpredictable. Which error would be worse in the situation you face?

(2) Break seemingly intractable problems into tractable sub-problems.

Channel the playful but disciplined spirit of Enrico Fermi who—when he wasn’t designing the world’s first atomic reactor—loved ballparking answers to headscratchers such as “How many extraterrestrial civilizations exist in the universe?” Decompose the problem into its knowable and unknowable parts. Flush ignorance into the open. Expose and examine your assumptions. Dare to be wrong by making your best guesses. Better to discover errors quickly than to hide them behind vague verbiage.

Superforecasters see Fermi-izing as part of the job. How else could they generate quantitative answers to seemingly impossible-to-quantify questions about Arafat’s autopsy, bird-flu epidemics, oil prices, Boko Haram, the Battle of Aleppo, and bond-yield spreads.

We find this Fermi-izing spirit at work even in the quest for love, the ultimate unquantifiable. Consider Peter Backus, a lonely guy in London, who guesstimated the number of potential female partners in his vicinity by starting with the population of London (approximately six million) and winnowing that number down by the proportion of women in the population (about 50%), by the proportion of singles (about 50%), by the proportion in the right age range (about 20%), by the proportion of university graduates (about 26%), by the proportion he finds attractive (only 5%), by the proportion likely to find him attractive (only 5%), and by the proportion likely to be compatible with him (about 10%). Conclusion: roughly twenty-six women in the pool, a daunting but not impossible search task.

There are no objectively correct answers to true-love questions, but we can score the accuracy of the Fermi estimates that superforecasters generate in the IARPA tournament. The surprise is how often remarkably good probability estimates arise from a remarkably crude series of assumptions and guesstimates.

(3) Strike the right balance between inside and outside views.

Superforecasters know that there is nothing new under the sun. Nothing is 100% “unique.” Linguists be damned: uniqueness is a matter of degree. So superforecasters conduct creative searches for comparison classes even for seemingly unique events, such as the outcome of a hunt for a high-profile terrorist (Joseph Kony) or the standoff between a new socialist government in Athens and Greece’s creditors. Superforecasters are in the habit of posing the outside-view question: How often do things of this sort happen in situations of this sort?

So too apparently is Larry Summers, a Harvard professor and former Treasury secretary. He knows about the planning fallacy: when bosses ask employees how long it will take to finish a project, employees tend to underestimate the time they need, often by factors of two or three. Summers suspects his own employees are no different. One former employee, Greg Mankiw, himself now a famous economist, recalls Summers’s strategy: he doubled the employee’s estimate, then moved to the next higher time unit. “So, if the research assistant says the task will take an hour, it will take two days. If he says two days, it will take four weeks.” It’s a nerd joke: Summers corrected for employees’ failure to take the outside view in making estimates by taking the outside view toward employees’ estimates, and then inventing a funny correction factor.

Of course Summers would adjust his correction factor if an employee astonished him and delivered on time. He would balance his outside-view expectation of tardiness against the new inside-view evidence that a particular employee is an exception to the rule. Because each of us is, to some degree, unique.

(4) Strike the right balance between under- and overreacting to evidence.

Belief updating is to good forecasting as brushing and flossing are to good dental hygiene. It can be boring, occasionally uncomfortable, but it pays off in the long term. That said, don’t suppose that belief updating is always easy because it sometimes is. Skillful updating requires teasing subtle signals from noisy news flows—all the while resisting the lure of wishful thinking.

Savvy forecasters learn to ferret out telltale clues before the rest of us. They snoop for nonobvious lead indicators, about what would have to happen before X could, where X might be anything from an expansion of Arctic sea ice to a nuclear war in the Korean peninsula. Note the fine line here between picking up subtle clues before everyone else and getting suckered by misleading clues. Does the appearance of an article critical of North Korea in the official Chinese press signal that China is about to squeeze Pyongyang hard—or was it just a quirky error in editorial judgment? The best forecasters tend to be incremental belief updaters, often moving from probabilities of, say, 0.4 to 0.35 or from 0.6 to 0.65, distinctions too subtle to capture with vague verbiage, like “might” or “maybe,” but distinctions that, in the long run, define the difference between good and great forecasters.

Yet superforecasters also know how to jump, to move their probability estimates fast in response to diagnostic signals. Superforecasters are not perfect Bayesian updaters but they are better than most of us. And that is largely because they value this skill and work hard at cultivating it.

(5) Look for the clashing causal forces at work in each problem.

For every good policy argument, there is typically a counterargument that is at least worth acknowledging. For instance, if you are a devout dove who believes that threatening military action never brings peace, be open to the possibility that you might be wrong about Iran. And the same advice applies if you are a devout hawk who believes that soft “appeasement” policies never pay off. Each side should list, in advance, the signs that would nudge them toward the other.

Now here comes the really hard part. In classical dialectics, thesis meets antithesis, producing synthesis. In dragonfly eye, one view meets another and another and another—all of which must be synthesized into a single image. There are no paint-by-number rules here. Synthesis is an art that requires reconciling irreducibly subjective judgments. If you do it well, engaging in this process of synthesizing should transform you from a cookie-cutter dove or hawk into an odd hybrid creature, a dove-hawk, with a nuanced view of when tougher or softer policies are likelier to work.

(6) Strive to distinguish as many degrees of doubt as the problem permits but no more.

Few things are either certain or impossible. And “maybe” isn’t all that informative. So your uncertainty dial needs more than three settings. Nuance matters. The more degrees of uncertainty you can distinguish, the better a forecaster you are likely to be. As in poker, you have an advantage if you are better than your competitors at separating 60/40 bets from 40/60—or 55/45 from 45/55. Translating vagueverbiage hunches into numeric probabilities feels unnatural at first but it can be done. It just requires patience and practice. The superforecasters have shown what is possible.

Most of us could learn, quite quickly, to think in more granular ways about uncertainty. Recall the episode in which President Obama was trying to figure out whether Osama bin Laden was the mystery occupant of the walled-in compound in Abbottabad. And recall the probability estimates of his intelligence officers and the president’s reaction to their estimates: “This is fifty-fifty … a flip of the coin.” Now suppose that President Obama had been shooting the breeze with basketball buddies and each one offered probability estimates on the outcome of a college game—and those estimates corresponded exactly to those offered by intelligence officers on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Would the president still have shrugged and said, “This is fifty-fifty,” or would he have said, “Sounds like the odds fall between three to one and four to one”? I bet on the latter. The president is accustomed to granular thinking in the domain of sports. Every year, he enjoys trying to predict the winners of the March Madness basketball tournament, a probability puzzle that draws the attention of serious statisticians. But, like his Democratic and Republican predecessors, he does not apply the same rigor to national security decisions. Why? Because different norms govern different thought processes. Reducing complex hunches to scorable probabilities is de rigueur in sports but not in national security.

So, don’t reserve rigorous reasoning for trivial pursuits. George Tenet would not have dared utter “slam dunk” about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq if the Bush 43 White House had enforced standards of evidence and proof that are second nature to seasoned gamblers on sporting events. Slam dunk implies one is willing to offer infinite odds—and to lose everything if one is wrong.

(7) Strike the right balance between under- and overconfidence, between prudence and decisiveness.

Superforecasters understand the risks both of rushing to judgment and of dawdling too long near “maybe.” They routinely manage the trade-off between the need to take decisive stands (who wants to listen to a waffler?) and the need to qualify their stands (who wants to listen to a blowhard?). They realize that long-term accuracy requires getting good scores on both calibration and resolution—which requires moving beyond blame-game ping-pong. It is not enough just to avoid the most recent mistake. They have to find creative ways to tamp down both types of forecasting errors—misses and false alarms—to the degree a fickle world permits such uncontroversial improvements in accuracy.

(8) Look for the errors behind your mistakes but beware of rearview-mirror hindsight biases.

Don’t try to justify or excuse your failures. Own them! Conduct unflinching postmortems: Where exactly did I go wrong? And remember that although the more common error is to learn too little from failure and to overlook flaws in your basic assumptions, it is also possible to learn too much (you may have been basically on the right track but made a minor technical mistake that had big ramifications). Also don’t forget to do postmortems on your successes too. Not all successes imply that your reasoning was right. You may have just lucked out by making offsetting errors. And if you keep confidently reasoning along the same lines, you are setting yourself up for a nasty surprise.

(9) Bring out the best in others and let others bring out the best in you.

Master the fine arts of team management, especially perspective taking (understanding the arguments of the other side so well that you can reproduce them to the other’s satisfaction), precision questioning (helping others to clarify their arguments so they are not misunderstood), and constructive confrontation (learning to disagree without being disagreeable). Wise leaders know how fine the line can be between a helpful suggestion and micromanagerial meddling or between a rigid group and a decisive one or between a scatterbrained group and an open-minded one. Tommy Lasorda, the former coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers, got it roughly right: “Managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.”

(10) Master the error-balancing bicycle.

Implementing each commandment requires balancing opposing errors. Just as you can’t learn to ride a bicycle by reading a physics textbook, you can’t become a superforecaster by reading training manuals. Learning requires doing, with good feedback that leaves no ambiguity about whether you are succeeding—“I’m rolling along smoothly!”—or whether you are failing—“crash!” Also remember that practice is not just going through the motions of making forecasts, or casually reading the news and tossing out probabilities. Like all other known forms of expertise, superforecasting is the product of deep, deliberative practice.

(11) Don’t treat commandments as commandments.

“It is impossible to lay down binding rules,” Helmuth von Moltke warned, “because two cases will never be exactly the same.” As in war, so in all things. Guidelines are the best we can do in a world where nothing is certain or exactly repeatable. Superforecasting requires constant mindfulness, even when—perhaps especially when—you are dutifully trying to follow these commandments.


For tournaments to have a positive effect on society, we need to make a very concerted effort to improve the quality of the question generation process and to engage people in public debates to participate in that. The problem here is, and this is where I tend to come a little closer to Danny’s pessimism on this, it’s hard to convince someone who’s a high status incumbent to play in a game in which the best plausible outcome is you’re going to break even. Your fans already expect you to win, so if you win you’re basically breaking even. The more likely outcome is you’re not going to do all that well because there is a somewhat loose coupling and many pundits’ forecasting expertise probably is overrated.

Fun stuff:

The reason there’s not a big market for foxy case studies in business schools is because MBAs would probably recoil from them and business schools are pretty customer-friendly.

Slides from the Edge Masterclass with Philip Tetlock

Note: GJP refers to the Good Judgment Project, the research study on forecasting that Tetlock discusses through the book. The slides below summarise the findings from GJP and the participants’ success in IARPA’s forecasting tournaments.

Photo by Nicole Wilcox on Unsplash


Do We Need Wiser Education?

At the Art / Earth / Tech annual Gathering, a group of us came together to distill our thoughts on the need for a wiser education system. We used the structure of situation, complication, question, hypothesis (SCQH).

Rufus, Alina, Emmanuel, Ninon, Tom, Richard, Hannes

Table of contents


[In France/UK] Children spend 16% of their waking lives between the ages of 4 and 18 in formal education. It has a medium social priority with ~5.5% of GDP invested and teachers being respected / paid ok. At present education is increasingly [centralized,] standardized and regulated (by the state) and is focused on a) performance in key knowledge areas (math, etc) b) “safety” and c) (in)equality, with the overall implied purpose of preparing children for being productive (but lacking any explicit statement of either ontology or deep purpose).

Society and economy are rapidly changing with the growth of affluence meaning that deep well-being is socio-economically valuable (e.g. low depression, low obesity, greater connection etc) and the arrival of the information economy meaning that new, broad skills are important; and finally globalization leads to fears about competition and how to find work in the future.


Education is not the priority it should be socially and economically (i.e. ~ number one) e.g. being a school teacher is not a prestigious job. Education policy maintains a diluted neutrality that condemns it to lacking an explicit & powerful purpose(+). The current system does not produce the qualities(++) we need for the 21st century(+++). Finally, a lack of trust and listening between stakeholders (, parents, policy-makers) makes it hard to adopt new teaching methods that would address the above whilst an overly rigid system(++++) discourages experiments and alternatives(+++++) which would deliver more of what we truly want in education as well as provide room to discover new methods and approaches.

(+) and it is hard to have one because of a lack of societal consensus on foundational values and views (in relation to education)

(++) e.g. current qualities vs desired qualities

  • competitive /dominating vs coopetitive
  • individualistic vs interconnected (ecowarrior) / community-minded
  • scarce/anxious vs abundant / generous
  • Narrow / righteous vs critically open-minded
  • Passive vs autonomous / engaged /diligent /self-motivated / agentive
  • dispirited / vs well/spirited

(+++) interdependence re climate change, creativity and collaboration and autonomy re information economy

(++++) centralized (central curriculum), rigid (you must follow that) and regulated (assessed, inspected)

(+++++) e.g. Steiner-Waldorf, Montessori etc …


What is an education system for e.g. France/UK – including its underlying purpose including its vision for being – system that would foster children and adults with the qualities we need for the 21st century including deep wellness and the capacity to address collective challenges such as the ecological crisis?


We have not yet converged on a single hypothesis so we list here all those generated.

Ninon + Tom

To give children skills, knowledge and support to enable them, as much as possible, to choose, in (true) freedom, their individual path to live fulfilled lives(+), with an underlying belief in our innate goodness, a foundation of trust, and an appreciation of our interconnectedness with each other and the planet.

(+) including having a metier / a profession is important. [intrinsic vs extrinsic reward]

Ninon bis

To give children skills and knowledge and support to enable them, as much as possible, to choose, in (true) freedom, their individual path to live fulfilled lives by:

  • Not creating a hierarchy between subject matters and types of intelligence.
  • Developing an ability for children to seek intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards.
  • Developing an ability for children to form judgement and seek truth
  • Never forgetting to nourish a sense of awe for the world: approaching all subject matters out of what is beautiful in the world in the broadest sense of the term (including students’ innate goodness and abilities)
  • Finally, by developing an appreciation of our interconnectedness with each other and the planet (and not just with a specific nation or ethnic group).

Richard and Emmanuel

To produce well functioning – productive, law-abiding, well-behaved, happy to go to work – members of society who are prepared for life in professional employment. Nowadays that means children should learn:

  • how to be well socialised,
  • connected to their fellow citizens
  • able to learn and to grow independently for the rest of their lives.

(And the state should not have too much power in education).


The education system should be adjusted from having an 80% focus on producing good employees to at least a 50% on producing present, mindful human beings that are empowered and enabled to revert our presence to sustainability levels.


Education must give us access to our history, enable us to continue progress (knowledge is growing, our abilities are growing as a collective, peace is growing and genuine sustainability) and to find/create our (creative, caring) purpose individually and collectively.


To (help) develop human beings who are present and purposeful, who are truly and deeply free(+) and present to their interconnection with others and the planet.

(+) free from attachment, free from craving, ignorance and delusion – in short, awakened or awakening.

Education is deeply important. We believe that the bringing forth of a new human being is one of the most sacred tasks entrusted to a society and that formal education plays a central role in that – and one embedded within the wider context of culture, community and family. As a result we believe that teaching and education are of the greatest importance and prestige in our society.

Ontology: We believe that all humans share “buddha-nature” or “divine love and grace” and at the same time that this nature needs to be cultivated.

Ontogeny: Our nature is like a garden in which many seeds are present including both the useful (flowers) and the less useful (weeds). Some of the flower include mindfulness, love, generosity, curiosity, diligence etc. Some of the weeds include greed, jealousy, sloth, anger etc.

The purpose of education is then to nurture and nourish the growing being, cultivating those seeds that of well-being and wisdom and dis-cultivating (but not fighting or denying) those of unwisdom. It is to produce wise and well beings, who are autonomous and cooperative, creative and diligent, thoughtful and imaginative. We desire education to attend to the “whole” being: body, mind and spirit (well-integrated: left and right, upper and lower brain). Whilst the attainment of the basic mental skills – reading, writing ‘rithemtic etc – is important, indeed essential, we believe that the development of the body, emotions and spirit are equally if not more important.

In terms of learning methods we think that learnings how to learn is more important than learning information,


Notes on David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral

Fascinating book. Its argument for the functional role of religion has much to offer for our own interest in “re-spiritualising society”. The detailed grounding of religious belief and organisation in evolutionary group-selection and the rich set of examples are the analogy of neuroscience (and positive psychology) for buddhist ontology: a modern scientific and utilitarian grounding for ancient wisdom and tradition.

He also believes in the possibility of transformation (from Chapter 7):

One reason that I admire some aspects of religion is because I share some of its values. I have not attempted to hide this fact, and I hope that it has not intruded upon my science. Nor have I attempted to conceal my own basic optimism that the world can be a better place in the future than in the past or present—that there can be such a thing as a path to enlightenment. Being a scientist does not require becoming indifferent to human welfare.

Table of contents


Of Hutterites and Bees – or the organismic metaphor for religious groups has substance

True love means growth for the whole organism, whose members are all interdependent and serve each other. That is the outward form of the inner working of the Spirit, the organism of the Body governed by Christ. We see the same thing among the bees, who all work with equal zeal gathering honey.

—Ehrenpreis [1650] 1978, 11

Religious believers often compare their communities to a single organism or even to a social insect colony. The passage quoted above is from the writings of the Hutterites, a Christian denomination that originated in Europe five centuries ago and that currently thrives in communal settlements scattered throughout northwestern North America. Beehives are pictured on the road signs of the Mormon-influenced state of Utah. Across the world in China and Japan, Zen Buddhist monasteries were often constructed to resemble a single human body (Collcutt 1981).

The purpose of this book is to treat the organismic concept of religious groups as a serious scientific hypothesis. Organisms are a product of natural selection. Through countless generations of variation and selection, they acquire properties that enable them to survive and reproduce in their environments. My purpose is to see if human groups in general, and religious groups in particular, qualify as organismic in this sense.

Definition of Spirituality – connection to something bigger than ourselves

Spirituality is in part a feeling of being connected to something larger than oneself. Religion is in part a collection of beliefs and practices that honor spirituality. A scientific theory that affirms these statements cannot be entirely hostile to religion.

[Ed: I really like this definition of spirituality and religion]

Chapter 1: The View from Evolutionary Biology

Group selection can work and is a big deal

Social control, rather than highly self-sacrificial altruism, appears to solve the fundamental problem of social life at the individual level. An entire lexicon of words describing social control in human life has been borrowed to describe genetic and developmental interactions; “sheriff” genes, “parliaments” of genes, “rules of fairness,” and so on. The laws of genetics and development, which originally referred merely to general patterns, have acquired an eerie resemblance to the other meaning of the word law—a social contract enforced by punishment.

What works for individuals can also work for social groups. In their drive to explain highly self-sacrificial altruism, sociobiologists have tended to ignore an even more important question: Does benefiting the group require overt altruism on the part of individuals? If not, then group selection can favor mechanisms that organize groups into adaptive units without strong selection against these mechanisms within groups.

I use the word “overt” because a close look at social control mechanisms shows that they differ from altruism only in degree and not in kind. Returning to our bird example, suppose we discover that warning calls are indeed risky and help others at the expense of the caller. If they were performed voluntarily they would qualify as altruistic, with all the self-sacrifice implied by the word. Then we discover that they are not performed voluntarily because birds that fail to call are severely punished by other birds. Calling no longer qualifies as altruistic, but we still must explain the evolution of the punishing behavior that makes calling selfish. Punishers cause birds to issue warning calls that help everyone in the group, including free-riders who do not share the cost of enforcement. We have not solved the problem of altruism but merely moved it from the calling behavior to the punishment behavior. Economists call this a second-order public goods problem: causing another to perform a public good is itself a public good (Heckathorn 1990, 1993). There is, however, an important difference between the two kinds of altruism. The individual cost of enforcement can be much lower than the individual cost of issuing a warning cry. Social control can be regarded as a form of low-cost altruism that evolves to promote behaviors that would qualify as high-cost altruism if they were performed voluntarily. Elliott Sober and I call this “the amplification of altruism” (Sober and Wilson 1998, chap. 4). In general, social control mechanisms do not alter the basic conclusion that group-level adaptations require a corresponding process of group selection. Instead, they partially relax the trade-off between group benefit and individual self-sacrifice, allowing among-group selection to act without strong counteracting within-group selection.

The concept of organisms as social groups has transformed our understanding of multilevel selection in several ways. First, never again can it be said that higher-level selection is always weak compared to lower-level selection. Single organisms such as you and I are shining contradictions of that statement. Second, higher-level selection has always appeared unlikely because it has been linked with self-sacrificial altruism. Social control mechanisms cut this Gordian knot by partially relaxing the trade-off between group benefit and individual cost. Social control mechanisms are obviously relevant to religious groups, which are based on much more than voluntary altruism. Third, it is inconceivable that higher-level selection stops at the level currently known as individual organisms. Selection at the level of social groups is likely to be an important, if not a dominating, evolutionary force in thousands of species. In some cases such as the social insects, the groups are so thoroughly integrated that they deserve to be called organisms in their own right, as Wheeler (1928) suggested long ago and as modern social insect biologists such as Seeley (1995) increasingly acknowledge.

Against this background, the organismic concept of human groups receives new life. Thirty years ago, evolutionary biologists would have dismissed the Hutterites’ comparison of their communities to bodies and beehives as the worst kind of naive group selectionism. Now it is a vivid dot on the scientific radar screen.

Human Groups as Adaptive Units: we are naturally egalitarian

As Konner states in the passage quoted above, evolutionary biologists have tended to regard ancestral human groups as mere collections of self-interested individuals, exhibiting nepotism and niceness toward those who can return the favor but by no means qualifying as societal organisms. Multilevel selection theory makes it appear more likely that ancestral human groups were potent units of selection (Boehm 1999; Sober and Wilson 1998).

First, some empirical facts. Anthropologists don’t agree on much, but they appear to agree that modern hunter-gatherer societies around the world are remarkably egalitarian. The most impressive fact is that meat is usually scrupulously shared. The successful hunter and his immediate family get no more than the rest of the band. The most careful studies have weighed the meat on portable scales as it is divided into portions (Kaplan and Hill 1985a, b; Kaplan, Hill, and Hurtado 1984). Even when averaged over a period of weeks, there was no bias in favor of the actual procurers of the meat. Gathered items are shared less fully, but only in comparison to meat; the same study that reported 100 percent sharing of meat reported approximately 50 percent sharing of gathered items. If a number of people are gathering, it may make little sense to put the harvest together just to divide it again, so the sharing of gathered items must be evaluated differently than the sharing of meat.

Hunter-gatherer egalitarianism extends beyond food to social relationships. The request “take me to your leader” would be met with incomprehension, or perhaps ridicule, by a hunter-gatherer. There are no leaders other than those who have earned the respect of their peers by being models of good conduct, and who can only advise and not dictate. When the British anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard attempted to identify leaders among the Nuer (a pastoralist rather than a hunter-gatherer society but similar with respect to egalitarianism), all he could find was someone called the leopard-skin chief who turned out to be a specialist in conflict resolution, about whom more will be said in and [6].

Hunter-gatherers are egalitarian, not because they lack selfish impulses but because selfish impulses are effectively controlled by other members of the group. This form of guarded egalitarianism has been called “reverse dominance” by anthropologist Chris Boehm (1993, 1999; see also Knauft 1991). In many animal groups, the strongest individuals are usually able to dominate their rivals, taking a disproportionate share of the resources. This is within-group selection pure and simple. In human hunter-gatherer groups, an individual who attempts to dominate others is likely to encounter the combined resistance of the rest of the group. In most cases even the strongest individual is no match for the collective, so self-serving acts are effectively curtailed. Boehm’s survey of hunter-gatherer societies includes many examples of reverse domination, ranging in intensity from gossip, to ridicule, to ostracism, to assassination.

The Chewong – a concrete example of moral-religious rules to maintain group cooperation

On the other hand, the concept of human groups as moral communities fits nicely with the emerging paradigm of major transitions, in which groups become unified by a regulatory apparatus that promotes the welfare of the group as a whole without necessarily requiring extreme self-sacrifice of its members. An example will show how a real hunter-gatherer society accomplishes this, using mechanisms that border upon religion.

The Chewong are a tribe that inhabits the rain forest of the Malay peninsula (Howell 1984).13 They combine hunting and gathering with shifting agriculture, and they display the same kind of egalitarianism as pure hunter-gatherer societies. The distribution of food and other scarce items is governed by a system of superstitions known as punen, which roughly means “a calamity or misfortune, owing to not having satisfied an urgent desire”:

In the Chewong world, desires are most likely to occur in connection with food. If someone is not immediately invited to partake of a meal which he observes, or if someone is not given her share of any foodstuff seen to be brought back from the jungle, that person is placed in a state of punen because it is assumed one would always wish to be given a share and hence [that not being given a share would lead one to] experience an unfulfilled desire. . . . To “eat alone” is the ultimate bad behaviour in Chewong eyes, and there are several myths that testify to this. The sanction on sharing out food originates in the myth about Yinlugen Bud, who was the chief instrument in bringing the Chewong out of their presocial state by telling them that to eat alone was not proper human behaviour. (Howell 1984, 184)

This passage suggests that the superstitions, myths, and gods of Chewong culture are intimately related to a matter of supreme practical importance—food sharing. In addition, the punen system goes beyond beliefs to include social practices that virtually assure an equal distribution of food:

The Chewong take all possible precautions against provoking punen. All food caught in the forest is brought back and publicly revealed immediately. It is then shared out equally among all the households. The women cook it and then share the food in equal proportions among all the members of their own household. As soon as a carcass is brought back, and before it has been divided up, someone of the hunter’s family touches it with his finger and makes a round touching everyone present in the settlement, each time saying “punen.” . . . This is another way of announcing to everyone present that the food will soon be theirs, and to refrain from desiring it yet awhile. If guests arrive while the hosts are in the middle of a meal, they are immediately asked to partake. If they refuse, saying that they have just eaten, they are touched with a finger dipped in the food, while the person touching says “punen.” (185)

Although food is virtually always in short supply, other non-foodstuffs can be scarce or common depending upon the time of year or other circumstances. The punen system is sufficiently flexible to include items only when they are scarce:

Thus bamboo for baking the tapioca bread must be shared equally among all households if the gatherer had to go very far to obtain it. If the bamboo grows close to the settlement, one may collect enough for oneself only. The difference is expressed as bamboo far away (lao tyotn) or bamboo nearby (lao duah). If the nearby river dries out and water has to be carried some distance, it again has to be shared, but daily water collection from the usual source need not be shared. . . . Even if one does not want something that has been brought back, one has to be made publicly and specifically aware of the existence of the thing, by touch if not by receipt of an actual share. (185–86)

Chapter 2: The View from the Social Sciences

  • Durkheim was right: functionalism is a good interpretative approach to religion
  • Evans-Pritchard was actually a functionalist
  • Lots of good example from Evans Pritchard re Nuer (Table 2.3)
  • Table 2.4 has evidence from Somé (1997) on Dagara

Chapter 4: The Secular Utility of Religion: Historical Examples

Example 1: the Water Temple System of Bali

Example of Subak water system which involves a rich religious system that underpins an extraordinary (and very effective) solution to a basic collective action problem: how to share out the water from the crater lake among the rice farmers.

Lansing’s analysis of the metaphysical side of the water temple system is as instructive as his analysis of the practical side. In addition to the temples and deities, there is an important concept of holy water that symbolically represents the interdependence of the social units that interact with each other. As with Calvinism, these metaphysical elements are not a veneer but evidently are required for the system to work in a practical sense. Religious belief gives an authority to the system that it would not have as a purely secular institution (Rappaport 1979). In general terms, this authority is stated in a manuscript kept at the temple of the crater lake: “Because the Goddess makes the waters flow, those who do not follow her laws may not possess her rice terraces” (Lansing 1991, 73). The same principle is used in more specific ways to collect taxes from each village.3 In the minds of Balinese farmers, the authority of religion appears to be experienced as sincere belief, as Lansing discovered in the following conversation with a subak head:

Lansing: Where does the authority of the Jero Gde come from?

Subak Head: Belief . . . overflowing belief. Concerning Batur temple—really that is the center, the origin of waters, you see. At this moment, the Jero Gde holds all this in his hands. At the temple of Lake Batur. (77)

The water temple system of Bali perfectly illustrates the general theme of this book because it combines a religion that is extravagantly otherworldly with one of the most basic human activities required for survival and reproduction—the acquisition of food. If this isn’t what Durkheim meant by the secular utility of religion, what is? In addition, the water temple system provides insight on some of the major conceptual themes developed in earlier chapters. In chapter 1, I discussed the fact that groups must be defined separately for each trait. Organisms, in the strong sense of the word, are a group of elements that behave adaptively with respect to many traits, but a group can also be organismic with respect to some traits (e.g., predator defense) and not others (resource conservation). Human social groups span the same continuum; sometimes they are all-encompassing, but usually they are more narrowly defined, and in addition individuals function as members of many groups. The water temple system is a remarkable adaptation to multiple group membership that involves a separate church for each grouping, complete with its own congregation, deities, and obligations, but within a larger religious system that adaptively relates the groups to each other.


Isolation is a design feature

In chapter 2, I described Iannaccone’s (1992, 1994) prediction that strict religions become strong by isolating their members from the rest of society and by making internal cooperation the only game in town. Isolation is a design feature of the religion, not an external constraint. The history of Judaism provides many examples of this general principle. Isolating mechanisms such as circumcision, dietary restrictions, dress, language, and specific laws against sexual and social interactions are well known. Here is one example from the Synod of Frankfort in 1603: “If it is proven that any Jew has drunk wine in the house of Gentile, it shall be forbidden for any other Jew to marry his daughter, or to give him lodging, or to call him to the Torah or to allow him to perform any religious function” (Finkelstein 1924, 260).

Brilliant at in-group cooperation

According to Darwin’s basic scenario for group selection, cooperation is a fragile flower as far as within-group interactions are concerned, but cooperative groups robustly outcompete less cooperative groups. If Jewish communities were exceptionally cooperative by virtue of their religion, compared to the societies with which they interacted, this would give them an advantage in any endeavor that requires coordinated action. Their survival amidst other nations—at least in the absence of persecution—would be assured.

The theoretical expectation that Jewish communities should be highly cooperative is amply confirmed by the historical record. Let us begin with the benign aspects of cooperation, as we did with Calvinism. Jewish communities throughout history have been legendary for their absence of crime, poverty, alcoholism, and other social problems. Practicing Jews are justly proud of these accomplishments, as indeed they should be. The following passage is from a book on anti-Semitism from a Jewish perspective:

In nearly every society in which the Jews have lived for the past two thousand years, they have been better educated, more sober, more charitable with one another, committed far fewer violent crimes, and had a considerably more stable family life than their non-Jewish neighbors. These characteristics of Jewish life have been completely independent of Jews’ affluence or poverty. As the noted Black economist Thomas Sowell has concluded: “Even when the Jews lived in slums, they were slums with a difference—lower alcoholism, homicide, accidental death rates than other slums, or even the city as a whole. Their children had lower truancy rates, lower juvenile delinquency rates, and (by the 1930s) higher IQ’s than other children. . . . There was also more voting for congressmen by low income Jews than even by higher income Protestants or Catholics. . . . Despite a voluminous literature claiming that slums shape people’s values, the Jews had their own values, and they took those values into and out of the slums.” (Prager and Telushkin 1983, 46)

What religion or society wouldn’t want to boast about these accomplishments? Prager and Telushkin stress again and again that the virtues of Judaism reside in the religion, not the people. Assimilated Jews quickly fall prey to the ills of the surrounding society. This interpretation is fully consistent with my own account of religion from a multilevel perspective. Groups require a strong moral system to function adaptively, and Judaism provides an exceptionally strong moral system.

And in-group cooperation facilitates (successful) inter-group competition

Cooperation within groups is easy to admire, but the very same cooperation becomes morally ambiguous in the context of between-group interactions. We have seen that the Hebrew Bible instructed Jews to behave honorably toward outsiders in some contexts but also to use their cooperation as a weapon against other groups. Did this double standard continue during the Diaspora? And what should we expect on the basis of multilevel selection theory?

Jewish history is not as simple as a displaced people struggling to survive amidst hostile neighbors. Jewish groups survived and even prospered through specific activities and relationships with different elements of their host nations. From a purely actuarial standpoint, periods of prosperity were required to balance the catastrophic declines caused by persecution.

A common pattern was for Jews to form an alliance with one gentile segment of the host nation, usually the ruling elite, to exploit another gentile segment, such as the peasantry. Far from being anti-Semitic, the ruling elite would attempt to protect the Jews from the rest of the resentful host population. This kind of relationship is illustrated by Joseph in the biblical account of the sojourn in Egypt:

Joseph intercedes with the pharaoh on behalf of his family: “Then Joseph settled his father and his brothers, and gave them a possession in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land . . .” (Gen. 47:11). However, the account also emphasizes Joseph’s role in oppressing the Egyptians on behalf of the king. Joseph sells grain to the Egyptians during a famine until he has all of their money. He then requires the Egyptians to give their livestock for food and finally their land. “The land became the Pharaoh’s; and as for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other” (Gen. 47:20–21). However, regarding the Israelites, the section continues: “Thus Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; and they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly.” (MacDonald 1994, 114)

We do not know if this account is factual, but similar alliances with the ruling classes existed throughout Jewish history. Katz (1961, 55) describes the situation in sixteenth- through eighteenth-century Europe: “Since Jewish society was segregated religiously and socially from the other classes, its attitude toward them could be purely instrumental. . . . The non-Jew had no fear that the Jew would take a partisan stand in the struggle between the rulers and the ruled, who bore the economic yoke of the political privileges enjoyed by the rulers.” The Jew’s outsider status was an advantage as far as the rulers were concerned. This is a bleak picture from a broad-scale moral perspective, but it is exactly what we should expect from the largely amoral world of among-group interactions.

Many Jewish laws established an economic double standard with the same clarity that the Hebrew Bible prescribed military conduct toward other groups. The following example is from Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah (book 13, The Book of Civil Laws, chap. 5:1, 93; quoted in MacDonald 1994, 148):

It is permissible to borrow from a heathen or from an alien resident and to lend to him at interest. For it is written Thou shalt not lend upon interest to thy brother (Deut. 23:20)—To thy brother it is forbidden, but to the rest of the world it is permissible. Indeed, it is an affirmative commandment to lend money at interest to a heathen. For it is written Unto the heathen thou shalt lend upon interest (Deut. 23:21).

To pick another example from more recent times, Ashkenazi Jews were not allowed to underbid other Jews for franchises or to interfere with Jewish monopolies of gentile resources, to avoid losing the “money of Israel” (Katz 1961, 61). I don’t mean to imply that Jewish communities during the Diaspora invariably adopted an instrumental attitude toward members of other groups. In fact, their ability to act as corporate units may have enabled them to manage their reputations in cooperative intergroup relations more successfully than other groups, since dysfunctional groups have such poor control over their members that they are unable to maintain a reputation, even if they want to. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that Jewish communities during the Diaspora frequently engaged in economic between-group competition, and that their strong religion gave them the decisive edge that comes when more cooperative groups compete against less cooperative groups.

Early Christianity

Just a few items here, primarily the graphic depiction of what life was like in the period where Christianity was born:

Chaotic it was. Most of us imagine the typical Roman city as like the movie set for Ben Hur, but in fact they were incredibly crowded, filthy, and prone to catastrophic disaster. Stark lists the disasters that befell the city of Antioch:

During the course of about six hundred years of intermittent Roman rule, Antioch was taken by unfriendly forces eleven times and was plundered and sacked on five of these occasions. The city was also put to siege, but did not fall, two other times. In addition, Antioch burned entirely or in large part four times, three times by accident and once when the Persians carefully burned the city to the ground after picking it clean of valuables and taking the surviving population into captivity. Because the temples and many public buildings were built of stone, it is easy to forget that Greco-Roman cities consisted primarily of wood-frame buildings, plastered over, that were highly flammable and tightly packed together. Severe fires were frequent, and there was no pumping equipment with which to fight them. Besides the four huge conflagrations noted above, there were many large fires set during several of the six major periods of rioting that racked the city. By a major riot I mean one resulting in substantial damage and death, as distinct from the city’s frequent riots in which only a few were killed.

Antioch probably suffered from literally hundreds of significant earthquakes during these six centuries, but eight were so severe that nearly everything was destroyed and huge numbers died. Two other quakes may have been nearly as serious. At least three killer epidemics struck the city—with mortality rates probably running above 25 percent in each. Finally, there were at least five really serious famines. That comes to forty-one natural and social catastrophes, or an average of one every fifteen years. (159)

To make matters worse, the people that filled Roman cities belonged to a diversity of ethnic groups that hated each other. Not only did walls surround the city of Antioch to keep out unfriendly forces, but they also existed within the city to divide ethnic factions, which included Macedonians, Cretans, Cypriotes, Argives, Herakleidae, Athenians, Syrians, and Jews (157). As expected on the basis of the previous section of this chapter, the Jewish segment of the population expanded markedly as the city grew (Meeks and Wilken 1978). I cannot improve on Stark’s final summary of the urban social environment that formed the background for early Christianity:

Any accurate portrait of Antioch in New Testament times must depict a city filled with misery, danger, fear, despair, and hatred. A city where the average family lived a squalid life in filthy and cramped quarters, where at least half of the children died at birth or during infancy, and where most of the children who lived lost at least one parent before reaching maturity. A city filled with hatred and fear rooted in intense ethnic antagonisms and exacerbated by a constant stream of strangers. A city so lacking in stable networks of attachments that petty incidents could prompt mob violence. A city where crime flourished and all the streets were dangerous at night. And, perhaps above all, a city repeatedly smashed by cataclysmic catastrophes: where a resident could expect literally to be homeless from time to time, providing that he or she was among the survivors. (160–61)

Against this background, early Christian society must have looked very good indeed. For any coherent culture to survive amidst such chaos, it must possess some kind of an isolating mechanism. The analogy to a biological cell is instructive. Cell membranes allow wonderfully complicated self-sustaining processes to take place inside the cell amidst a larger outside world of chaos. The organismic concept of groups encourages us to look for something similar—a culturally defined membrane that allows highly organized self-sustaining social interactions to take place within the group amidst a larger world of chaos. We have seen that many forms of Judaism possess a cultural membrane that is difficult to leave or enter. They persist to this day because their social physiology enables them to survive and reproduce so well in their larger environment. Perhaps the most radical innovation of the early Christian Church was to provide a membrane and a social physiology comparable to Judaism for anyone who wanted to join, regardless of their ethnicity. This combination of permeability with respect to membership and impermeability with respect to interactions is a remarkable piece of social engineering. Anyone could become a Christian, but those who did were expected to overhaul their behaviors under the direction of a single God in a close-knit community that could easily enforce the new norms.

Culture and reproductive success

The behaviors prescribed by the early Christian Church were far more adaptive than those practiced in the surrounding Roman society. We commonly assume that the sex drive and the natural urge to have children will automatically result in babies. No one has to tell a population to grow; it simply does grow as long as resources are available. As strange as it may seem, Roman culture developed in a way that became hostile to biological reproduction, despite the availability of resources. Part of the problem was extreme male domination and a form of status-striving that made marriage and families unattractive prospects for males. Female infanticide was so common that Russell (1958) estimated a sex ratio of 131 males per 100 females in Rome and 140 males per 100 females in Italy, Asia Minor, and North Africa. Preference for sons can be adaptive at the scale of a single patriarchal lineage competing with other lineages, but it can have disastrous consequences at the scale of the whole society.11 Of course, Romans had a sex drive like everyone else, but they found ways to satisfy it in ways that did not lead to reproduction, such as homosexuality and nonreproductive heterosexual practices. Women who did conceive often did so in circumstances that caused them to get an abortion, itself a life-threatening operation. We are familiar with all of these practices in modern life but seldom think about their consequences for population growth. If we did, we might see some of them as solutions to the modern problem of overpopulation. For the Romans, these practices led to a crisis of underpopulation. Julius Caesar attempted to stimulate reproduction by awarding land to fathers of three or more children and considered legislation outlawing celibacy. Similar policies were attempted by subsequent emperors but to no avail. According to Boak (1955; discussed in Stark, 116) “[policies with] the aim of encouraging families to rear at least three children were pathetically impotent.” By the start of the Christian era, the Roman population had started to decline, even during the good times between plagues, and required a constant influx of “barbarian” settlers to maintain itself.

In contrast, the Christian religion, like the Jewish religion from which it was derived, expected marriage, abundant children, and fidelity in both sexes while outlawing abortion, infanticide, and nonreproductive sexual practices. When stated as a religious imperative and enforced by the social control mechanisms that come naturally to small encapsulated groups, Christianity succeeded at changing reproductive behavior as Roman law never could. Christian women raised more babies than their pagan counterparts.

Pro-social behaviour around plague and disease

Two plagues swept through the Roman Empire during the first three centuries of Christian history. Stark estimates that between a quarter and a third of the Empire’s population died in each case. No one at the time knew about germs, so it might seem that a plague would fell pagan and Christian alike. However, it turns out that simple nursing practices can make the difference between life and death for a disease such as smallpox or measles, which are suspected to have been the agents of the two Roman plagues. Simple provision of food and water for those too sick to cope for themselves can reduce mortality by two-thirds or even more by modern estimates (89). Pagans and Christians alike may have caught the disease, but they differed vastly in their response to it, as Dionysius described in a tribute following the second epidemic around year 260:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing upon themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead. . . . The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom. (82)

Dionysius continued by describing how the non-Christians responded to the plague:

The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.

This is extraordinary level of altruism that represents a “miracle of psychological and social engineering”

Altruism and social dilemmas have been discussed so much by biologists and social scientists that the ideas have lost much of their force. For altruismwe trot out weary examples of birds calling at the sight of predators or soldiers falling on grenades. The most recent theories placemore emphasis on punishment and social control as solutions to social dilemmas than altruism, which seems eternally vulnerable to the free-rider problem.12 A plague forces us to confront these issues with less glibness. Imagine that you lived in Roman times and that people were dying horribly all around you. You don’t know about germs but you do know about contagion, which means that even the simplest act of kindness, such as helping a plague victim drink water, will substantially increase your own chance of dying a horrible death. Knowing all of this, what would it take for you to care for your own child? Your grandparent? Your neighbor? A total stranger? How about properly disposing of the dead, who are beyond help but whose festering bodies are spreading the disease? Can you imagine doing it because it is required by law and you will be sent to jail if you don’t? Or because women will regard you as sexy and your status will go up in the eyes of your peers? Something extraordinary was required to solve this social dilemma: not a divine miracle but a miracle of psychological and social engineering that Roman society lacked and Christian society provided.

As for the plagues, so for the rest of life. Christian society provided “a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services” (Johnson 1976, 75; quoted in Stark 1996, 84). Even the emperor Julian acknowledged this fact in a letter to a pagan priest: “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us” (84). Julian saw the problem and tried to institute pagan charities to rival Christian charities, but the social dilemmas implied by the word “charity” are not solved so easily. Stark (87) invites us to read the following familiar passage from Matthew (25:35–40) and try to imagine how it must have appeared when it was a truly new morality:

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. . . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

And it was discriminating altruism that prevented free-riding

We have seen that religion cannot survive on belief alone. A system of social coordination and control is also necessary to direct action and exclude the inevitable free-riders who are indifferent to belief. The Christian emphasis on charity and forgiveness often gives the appearance of unguarded and indiscriminate altruism. Did not the early Christians nurse and support the Roman sick and poor, in addition to their own? A closer look reveals a far more sophisticated social physiology than indiscriminate altruism, just as we saw in the cases of Calvinism and Judaism. At least three categories of people can be easily distinguished: brethren in good standing, brethren in poor standing, and outsiders. Brethren in good standing received the benefits of altruism that they were also expected to give. Brethren in poor standing were subjected to an escalated series of punishments ending in exclusion. It was the apostle Paul who said “Cast out the wicked from among you.” The early Christians did indeed extend a charitable hand to outsiders, in part to bring them into the church, but not to the degree that charity was practiced within the church. If there was truly no distinction between conduct toward insiders and outsiders, the first tiny Christian communities would have evaporated in no time. In addition, joining the church involved expensive commitments that can be shown theoretically to weed out free-riders (Iannaccone 1992, 1994).


To summarize:

  • Christianity combined openness to new members, evangelism (great advertising) and strong intra-group preferneces and support.
  • Roman society was actually shrinking due to preferences for male children and sex practices. Christianity by contrast had a variety of values and practices that led to high levels of reproduction.
  • It was attractive to women who were treated more equally and given more opportunity than in Roman society (important both because women were scarce and because this is a great talent pool that was underused in rest of society). “Thus, not only did Christian women have more offspring than pagan women, but Christian society included a higher proportion of women than pagan society. Part of the rise of Christianity can be attributed to biological reproduction, pure and simple.”
  • Christianity generated key pro-social behaviours that led to lower mortality rates from plagues and disease
    • In-group altruism including self-sacrifice is central to Christianity e.g. the central narrative is that of Christ’s death and sacrifice for all Christians
    • Millenarian aspect (“imminence of kingdom of heaven”) encourages longer-term thinking for the afterlife
  • Mini-welfare state: built in generosity and mutual assistance
    • Also an advertisement to non-Christians

Behaviour during plague is a perfect example of exceptional pro-social behaviour brought about by a powerful belief system and strong community.

Chapter 5: The Secular Utility of Religion – Modern Literature

Korean Church in Houston

[Ed: clear, modern demonstration of material benefits of religion]


… A recent study of a Korean Christian Church based in Houston, Texas, provides a needed antidote to Iannaccone’s list (Kwon, Ebaugh, and Hagan 1997). Members of the Houston Korean Church consist largely of recent immigrants to the United States, many of whom arrive penniless, homeless, friendless, and unable to speak English. By joining the church they are immediately welcomed into a social network that offers friendship, help, and solid opportunity. As an ethnically based church, it can cater to the special needs of its members. New arrivals are aided in buying a vehicle, finding housing, obtaining job referrals, baby-sitter referrals, Social Security information, and translating services, making airport pickups, making and receiving visitations for new babies and hospitalized members, registering children for school, applying for citizenship, and dealing with the courts; the list of material benefits goes on and on.1 New members frequently are employed by more established members who own businesses and who also gain from the arrangement. The following autobiographical account summarizes the tremendous material benefits received by one member:

When I came to Houston, I did not know a single person here. I had only about $200 in my pocket. As I arrived, I went to a Korean church. I knew that the church was able to find me a job. Soon, they found me a position in a restaurant which was operated by a church member. He allowed me to eat as much as I wanted and to sleep in his restaurant at night . . . that’s how I saved the money to start my “road sales” business. I continued to attend the church. Later, when I opened my shop, many church members came to my shop as customers. (Kwon, Ebaugh, and Hagan 1997, 254)

It might seem that this person had only material benefits in mind, which provided all the incentives needed to join such a church. However, by now we should be suspicious of this conclusion. As we have seen, the practical side of religion does not negate the spiritual and metaphysical sides; they go together and reinforce each other. Members of the Korean Christian Church obtain psychic benefits that are regarded as just as important as material benefits, including emotional support, a sense of belonging, and respect that is lacking from their position in American society. Here is a description of Mr. Kim, who came to America before the Houston Korean Church existed but who nevertheless joined as an already successful businessman:

Mr. Kim, who came to Houston from Korea 20 years ago, said that when he was working from 5 A.M. to 11 P.M. seven days a week, he simply did not have any time to ponder his emotional needs. After he had established himself as a prominent businessman in Houston, he started to feel depressed and bored. He began to attend the Korean Christian Church and become part of a cell group that, as he described, “saved” him from his emotional problems. Through the church, he found friendship, a sense of belonging, and “the reason for being,” which he had forgotten since his arrival in America and during his struggles to establish himself. (252)

Mr. Kim may also have profited financially from church members who became employees and customers, but I am prepared to accept his testimonial at face value. I do not think that people are driven entirely by material interests, much less material self-interest (Sober and Wilson 1998; Wilson and Sober 2001). I find it plausible that Mr. Kim eagerly shared his wealth with others and traded dollars and cents for a sense of belonging. The need for respect is especially poignant. Mr. Son, a sixty-eight-year-old deacon of the church, was a college professor in Korea but was turned away by American universities and ended up opening a flower shop. I find it plausible that the respect accorded to him as church elder was more important to him than material benefits. He may well have become poorer to earn respect. In part because respect is a basic human need, especially valued by Koreans and in especially short supply for Korean immigrants, the Houston Korean Church includes a large number of “official” positions that grant a formal status to their holders.2

Needs to adapt for the future (or will disappear)

[Ed: nice analogy with the sense of cultural evolutionary pressure – what is adaptive at one point may be no longer. Need to evolve].

The cell group ministry works so well that it is being considered for adoption by other Christian denominations, just as the social organization of Calvin’s church was copied five hundred years ago. However, it does have the effect of preventing Korean immigrants from being fully assimilated into American society. Perhaps for this reason, it is less popular among second-generation Koreans, including this young man, who describes the religious involvement of his parents: Church, home and work, that’s all they have. That’s their whole life. They go to work in the morning, come home at night, go to church or talk to someone they know from church in the evening, and so on and on. They don’t have any motivation to know or even a notion in their head that there is a whole world out there, the world that they don’t know about and their children need to know about. (255) Thus, the very same church that provides opportunities for recent immigrants can limit opportunities for their offspring, a point to which I will shortly return.

Chapter 6: Forgiveness as a Complex Adaptation

Evolutionary analysis of Christian forgiveness

Forgiveness and the creation of nations

… [preceded by story of Pygmy transgression in which someone sleeps with his cousin and is ultimately forgiven …]

Retaliation, a lasting change in behavior, and forgiveness took place through an outpouring of emotions. The group weathered the storm and sailed along on a relatively even keel without anyone knowing that they were at the helm. This episode recalls Tocqueville’s description of small groups as so perfectly natural that they seem to constitute themselves.

Tocqueville appreciated that large societies are not natural in the same way. Something more must exist for a nation such as France or the United States to hang together. Furthermore, the “something” that in Tocqueville’s time held France together was different from the “something” that held the United States together, with important consequences for the vitality of the two nations. The “somethings” were a complex mix of psychological attitudes, informal customs, and formal social organizations that can be collectively referred to as culture. Of course, hunter-gatherer societies such as Mbuti also have a culture that is important for orchestrating their behavior. We are talking about differences in culture and not its presence and absence. Rather than calling small societies “natural” and large societies “unnatural,” we should simply say that they require different cultures to make them hang together as societies. The Mbuti do not have kings, courts, or constitutions. Larger nations do—and must—to exist at the scale that they do. Far from marginalizing culture, innate psychology provides the building blocks from which innumerable cultural structures have been built.

Mal-adaptation of Christianity (and the contradictions of the Gospels)

One remarkable fact is that the gospel writers so freely altered their most sacred story to adapt it to their particular needs. When it comes to altering a sacred story, it seems that nothing is sacred—at least during the early stages of religious evolution. Another remarkable fact is that the Four Gospels could be assembled into a single collection in spite of their massive contradictions. Even a child approaching the New Testament with a clear eye must wonder why Jesus preached successfully in his home town according to one version and was almost thrown off a cliff in another. There must be a sense in which religious belief is so concerned with using sacred symbols for utilitarian purposes that logical consistency and historical accuracy become secondary considerations. Despite its internal contradictions, the New Testament provides an arsenal of sacred symbols that can be selectively employed depending on the specific situation. As one example, Pagels (99) notes that the Gospel according to John, whose sect was most bitterly opposed to its surrounding social environment, has ever since been an inspiration and comfort to Christian churches that find themselves battling for their lives.

The very success of the Christian Church may also have limited the evolutionary flexibility that characterized its early stages. Once the New Testament was canonized, the only way to adapt to future environments was to select from an unchanging arsenal of sacred symbols. It was impossible to make the Romans the primary culprit for Jesus’ death, even though it would have made sense after the Romans became the primary enemy of the Church. In addition, it is entirely possible that the New Testament has predisposed Christians to hate Jews long, long after it ceased to be adaptive. In short, to the extent that Christian belief systems are not adapted to their current environments, they can cause inappropriate patterns of forgiveness and failure to forgive.

Universal brotherhood (is hard to do)

Having made this point, we must acknowledge that the exalted view of Christianity must also be tempered. Christianity and virtually all other religions fall short when judged by the loftiest standard of universal brotherhood. They merely adapt groups to their local environments. When they lift people out of poverty and desperation, they deserve our highest admiration. When they become agents of conquest and aggression, they remain exalted for their believers but deserve to be judged as immoral by outsiders who see the aggressors as part of a larger group. Perhaps universal brotherhood can be achieved by a religion or another social organization, but that is a challenge for the future. [emphasis added]

For me, the failure of religion to achieve universal brotherhood is like the failure of birds to break the sound barrier. Imagine that you discover a bird with an injured wing. By fixing its wing, you enable the bird to fly faster. Now imagine that you discover a bird that is perfectly healthy. It has been beautifully designed by natural selection to speed through the air at seventy miles per hour. However, you want to help it fly faster. Your task in this case will be much harder than fixing an injured wing. You will need to discover a design breakthrough that was missed by the natural selection process. Perhaps such a breakthrough is possible, but it will require more knowledge and cleverness than fixing a broken wing.

The ability of a group to function adaptively, like flight in birds, is a remarkable and complex adaptation. It is remarkable at the scale of face-to-face groups and even more remarkable at the scale of large modern societies. When we criticize a religion or other social system for failing to perform better or to expand its moral circle still wider, we often implicitly assume that the problem is like a broken wing with an easy solution. If only those Christians were less hypocritical about forgiveness, Christian society would run better and at a larger scale. I suggest that this way of thinking, however well intentioned, is misinformed and ultimately unproductive. Improving the adaptedness of society may require appreciating the adaptive sophistication that already exists. An evolutionary perspective can contribute to this understanding.

cf Brexit

[ed: cf the arguments re brexit. This is exactly my point. I favour universal brotherhood and I am also a realist. I also think the point about needing a breakthrough is correct. You need something to get to a bigger group level and i think that is a breakthrough in psycho-ontology]

A new cultural structure – cf AET

He concludes with an aspiration eerily similar to some of my hopes for art earth tech

Part of the religious temperament is to imagine a future vastly better than the present. In purely scientific terms this means finding a new cultural structure that is as miraculous in our eyes as Christianity was to Justin. I do not know if such a structure exists, but can anyone prove that cultural evolution has already run its course, that all symphonies have been written and all structures built? I think not.


Ode to a future culturology

Cultures are defensive constructions against chaos, designed to reduce the impact of randomness on experience. They are adaptive responses, just as feathers are for birds and fur is for mammals. Cultures prescribe norms, evolve goals, build beliefs that help us tackle the challenges of existence. In so doing they must rule out many alternative goals and beliefs, and thereby limit possibilities; but this channeling of attention to a limited set of goals and means is what allows effortless actions within self-erected boundaries. —Csikszentmihalyi 1990, 91

This passage claims for culture in general what I have tried to show for religion in particular. I like it in part because its author does not study culture for a living. He is a distinguished psychologist best known for his research on individual experience. The passage merely reflects what for him seems common sense.

If the formal study of culture ever converges upon this common-sense view, as it should, at least three transformations will have taken place. First, the study of culture will be solidly evolutionary. Second, much of the evolution will be acknowledged to take place at the group level; you can’t talk about cultures having feathers and fur without talking about group selection. Third, human nature will be seen as something that evolves rather than as something we are stuck with. After all, nature evolves, so why not human nature? The first impulse of many evolutionary biologists would be to say that human nature does evolve, but too slowly to make a difference. They are thinking of genetic evolution, a limitation that vanishes as soon as genetic and cultural evolution are properly integrated with each other. By analogy, virtually all mammals, from mice to giraffes, have exactly seven neck vertebrae. I don’t know why this trait is so conservative in the mammalian line, but it has not prevented some mammals from evolving very long necks and others from evolving very short necks. Human traits can similarly be constant in some respects, such as the hypothetical innate psychology discussed in chapters 1 and 6, but offer so much flexibility in other respects that cultures can evolve to be as different from each other as mice are from giraffes, with new forms possible in the future that can scarcely be imagined in the present. It is ironic that evolutionary theories of human behavior so often give the impression of an incapacity for change.

[Ed: this chimes closely with my own interests and intuitions about the study of culture and its practical application. Culture can be consciously created – unlike genetics (at least for now!)]


[Ed: and an argument that understanding the utility of religious belief need not reduce the hold that its transcendent power has upon us]

… [I] think of society as an aircraft of our own making, which can fly effortlessly toward the heavens or crash and burn, depending upon how it is constructed. I am also encouraged by some of the examples of religious belief that we have encountered in the pages of this book, which combine a hard-headed factual realism with the profound respect for symbols embodied in the word “sacred.” Like the Nuer tribesman and Balinese farmer, let us know exactly what our unifying systems are for, and then pay them homage with overflowing belief.


Collcutt, M. 1981. Five mountains: The Rinzai Zen monastic tradition in Medieval Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Interesting database for cultures

When Elliott Sober and I wanted to say something general about group selection and human evolution, we chose a sample of twenty-five cultures at random from the Human Relations Area File, an anthropological data base designed for cross-cultural comparison (Sober and Wilson 1998, chap. 5).


Notes on Ken Wilber’s Integral Spirituality

Just read Integral Spirituality which is excellent. I suspect the casual writing, poor editing and poor branding (name and cover) get in the way of Wilber’s monumental achievement. It is overbrimming with insight, rich in depth and packed with structural insights into the nature of knowing and being that kept having me repeatedly going “oh yes, now that makes sense.” Once you’ve got it you never go back. Below I summarize some of the main points.

Summary and Excerpts

AQAL (all quadrants, all lines)

AQAL (all quadrants, all lines) model with 4 quadrants and its lines of development within.

                Interior  |  Exterior

      Singular      I     |    It
      Plural       We     |    Its

For me, distinguishing, say, the interiority of the contemplative / meditative vs the exteriority of say neuroscience was really useful. And simply, labelling all of this is very helpful (how many debates arise out of poor term definition):

  • I = subjective, lived experience (of the individual)
  • It = individual external i.e. behaviour, neuroscience, atoms etc
  • We = culture (subjective group experience, shared meaning etc)
  • Its = systems (economies, group dynamics etc)

He also has inside and outside on each of these to give 8 zones (I’m still working this one out fully).

Wilber-Coombs lattice

Wilber-Coombs lattice. Another useful distinction of states vs stages. States = states of “consciousness/awareness” from egoic out to full non-duality whilst stages correspond to value paradigms. Seeing these as two independent, orthogonal axes of development was like “Oh yeah” and helps clear up a lot of confusion e.g. enlightenment being used for states but not stages (so it explains why you can have people who are very advanced in e.g. meditation but who are not advanced in stages). This allows Wilber to define “full” enlightenment as all states, all stages.

3S = stages, states, shadows

3S = stages, states, shadows

Distinction of shadows. A shadow is something like trauma, psychological dysfunction due to disidentification (suppression, repression, othering) of self with some part of oneself – the turning of an I into an it. Makes clear why you can have people advanced in contemplation who still have a lot of sh** to deal with.


Here’s the best summary I’ve found online:


Confusion of states with stages and unawareness of stage. Turning contemplative development into an ego trip and a justification for onanism: I get to do whatever I want, there are no rules (no “right actions”, no “right views”). It also gives rise to trivial pluralism / relativism.

Modernity and Post-modernity

His explanation of modernity and postmodernity was the first time i really got postmodernity and especially what was useful in it (intersubjectivity, understanding culture, the importance of perspectives) and what was flawed in it (“I’m the whole map” rather than just one quadrant; the performance paradox: there is no univeral truth except that there is no universal truth etc).

Missing role of Spirituality

An explanation of the (missing) role of spirituality – crudely in transition to orange we dumped spirituality and because individual evolution goes through stages that is a real block to healthy reintroduction even at higher stages (e.g. reintroduction in green often turns into new-ageism)

  • 4 judgments / dimensions of: spirituality, morals, aesthetics and science
  • Why missing spirituality is such a big deal and is causing such friction: “amber” crashing into “orange” and “green”. “Level-line” dysfunction: in orange spirituality has been eliminated and science has taken over everything.

Plural parallels singular and society is not a super-organism

That plural parallels singular rather than extending it. Put simply: societies are not the next level up from organisms (in the way organisms are the next level up from cells). So leviathan style metaphors are misleading. And “Gaia” style paradigms: atom => molecule => … => cell => organism => family => tribe => society are fundamentally flawed. Plurals parallels I but they are not extensions. Basic argument is that I items (e.g. atom, molecule, cell, organism) have a “dominant monad” – the thing moves together e.g. if i walk over there every cell in my body walks over there. This is not generally true of collections of organisms e.g. human societies.

Cultural Trauma and Blind Spots

He has the cultural trauma idea (western orange (i.e. enlightenment) repression of spirituality is due to incomplete trauma of religion – Voltaire’s “remember the millions”)


Asides/improvements (mainly of communication):

  • is the colour spectrum the best communication model for stages (which I think comes from Graves and spiral dynamics)
  • reduce the chattiness
  • reduce the critique of other models (often spot on but unnecessary and somehow diminishing even if correct)
  • so many ideas in one place (with a lot of notation and abbreviations!)
  • more examples / stories
  • reduce / replace the perspective algebra (though maybe once I get that better I’ll appreciate it)

Particularly valuable to the AET agenda

  • Stages: help us identify ourselves (mixing stages in the community will be tough). My belief is that we are teal or up on the spectrum (we aren’t green – we constantly beef against millenial greenness with its naive anti-hierarchy (“who are you to tell me what to do”), its indulgent egoism (lack of work ethic), consumerist spirituality (“burning man” and drugs), lack of analytical rigour (“science is so oppressive”, “my crystals work”)
  • Conceptual clarity that will reduce petty arguments over category errors or inter-quadrant fights e.g. analytical rigour (science), contemplative depth (meditation) and cultural interdependence and perspective (views) can all coexist together.
  • Role of spirituality (and its current absence). Clearly sets out the missing and why its importance. Also distinguishes multiple meanings of “spirituality” in discourse.

Personally it helps frame and extend my current focus on culture. I’m currently obsessed with culture. Culture is the study of collective being – the analogy of ontology for the group. I’ve been starting to get ontology for myself particularly in the gestalt moment of landmark, and, in that, realising that I’d been engaged in practical ontology via meditation and reflection for a long time and this was a major interest of mine (for a long time I’d sort of thought ontology was too grand for me – it was Heidegger and I’d never made it past p.35 of Sein und Zeit).

This then combined with my long-term interest in history, economics, politics etc which is all about group. In addition, i grokked that individual being is fundamentally intertwined with collective being i.e. culture.

Meanwhile my long-running interest and ambitions around social/political change had, for some time, been running up against the reality that we aren’t all perfect rational beings (“dad and his newspapers”, “X and the iraq war”, evidence from endless discussions with others, the news, open knowledge is not much without open minds etc). I’d already been grounding / getting major insights on that at the individual psychological level out of Buddhism (“non-attachment to views”) and modern cog-sci but I always felt there was something missing about the group (“GDP is not a just a view it is a co-created view of the group”).

And finally this linked up with my interest in group both for the practicality and richness of community and community living in my own life (it’s something about upbringing – look at my sister and me both living in community!) but also for its importance in group coordination to solve collective action problems and to ground awakening (“you need a sangha”, “the tiger that goes to the lowlands dies”, my own struggles to meditate on my own etc).

To summarize, all roads led to culture:

  • Ontology (own well-being and phenomenology, meditation, landmark etc) => we don’t exist in a vacuum, our “being” (and esp views) come from our ancestors, friends, school … => culture
  • History, economics, anthropology etc (my attraction to deep, simple explanations (e.g. plate tectonics) of human phenomena a la Annales school, evolutionary psych, what are the possible orderings of a society and e.g. why does patriarchy happen so much etc) => culture
  • Politics and social change => collective action and collective view problems (why do people believe the things they do? Well, it is socially co-created …) => culture (values, shared assumptions, ways of working, sense of identity “imagined communities”)
  • Practical community building => why do people struggle to live and align together => culture (esp values and practices)
  • Practical business building => why do companies succeed / fail => economic niche (monopolies are great however you are) + culture + strategy. But economic niches are hard to find (everyone is looking for them and often only obvious in retrospect and culture dominates strategy so in any semi-competitive environment (not an economic niche) culture is probably decisive over the longer run => culture

There is a danger here that culture is just a convenient totalising label – a nice name for my tendency to seek theories of everything. There is some truth to this and the integral theory is useful here too: I haven’t really distinguished culture from systems theory – for me its sort of been both (though with more of an emphasis on lived experience). The integral stuff suggests distinguishing these two is helpful: crudely economics is distinguished from culture and history informs both (and much, much more).

It might also help to set out some of the key questions i have and their priority.

  • Performant vs dysfunctional group dynamics? How are these created and/or transformed (e.g. can you transform a dysfunctional culture, how can you create a great culture and how do cultures happen generally)
  • Performant at what? (i.e. what are your values) Is it about material production (output, innovation)? Spiritual production (wisdom, contemplative realistion)? Collective action and team energy? Is is about aesthetic production (artworks, creativity, self-expression)? Is it about morality (goodness etc)?
  • What possible values constellations are there? What possible cultures are there? (e.g. is it possible to have a culture that is both highly materially productive, highly joyful and fun-loving and with deep contemplation?)
  • How can one use cultural understanding to improve the quality and effectiveness of my own and others interactions right now?
  • What is the inter-relation of politics and governance (i.e. semi-formalized decision-making) and implicit cultural assumptions and practices. (My contention is that culture is the foundation without which governance become an empty and dysfunctional shell).

More intellectually (i.e. of less immediate practical importance)

  • How did we come to be the way we are? And how contingent vs inevitable was that (markov chains theorm). Specifically, around our political, social and economic institutions and, at the personal level, our being. cf Albion’s Seed.
  • How do ontology and culturology interact? How does individual being come from group and (of lesser interest actually) the group from the individual (though this latter is important when it comes to collective action problems)
  • Is the limit of the consensual state the imagined community and how has (and how can) that grow over time and are their limits to that? And can we alter them by our own efforts either via psycho-spiritual means e.g. meditation, spiritual development; social means e.g. institutions or technological means e.g. trust metrics (on these latter i am super sceptical). Practically, this relates to my current hypothesis that the limits of the social democratic state is in the low tens of millions and that ultra-large “democratic” states such as the US, Brazil or the EU are necessarily dysfunctional at our current state of psycho-social development and group identification.

Synthesis and the Middle Way

We seek a middle way, a synthesis …


          Spritual                          Material

          Intuition                         Rigour
          Creativity                        Analysis
          Beyond language                   Language

          Idealistic                        Pragmatic

          Collective                        Individual

Can digital businesses thrive and have a mindful culture?

“We know that the bottom line of business is profit. But to profit means “to benefit from.” … there’s nothing wrong with making money. It’s possible to make money in a way that is not destructive, that promotes more social justice and more understanding and lessens the suffering that exists all around us. To do this, we need to be free from the pursuit of power, wealth, fame, and sex. … it’s possible to work in the corporate world in a way that brings a lot of happiness, both to other people and to us.”

Thich Nhat Hanh. “The Art of Power”

This piece talks to the desire of individuals and companies in the digital sector to find better, more mindful ways of operating. It argues that with the current structure of the digital economy, it will be hard, if not impossible, to create and sustain truly mindful culture in tech companies.

This is because core aspects of the digital economy create an environment that is anti-mindful in key ways: stressed, obsessed with achievement and money, ego-oriented, and short-term. These pressures are not simply cultural, they flow from the basic structures of the current digital economy. For example, the winner-takes-all dynamic that make it necessary to raise large sums from investors and to target breakneck growth (“grow or die”).

Thus, to have a weller, more mindful culture in the digital sector requres a change the way the digital economy works. Conversely, the more mindful and aware of these issues we are the easier it will be to create these changes in the economy. Thus, the “transformation of being” and “transformation of production” need to go together (cf Sketches of a Future Society – Part II).

Table of contents

The Situation

Within the digital technology sector there is a growing interest in more mindful ways of operating. Companies such as Salesforce, Google and Facebook amongst many others offer mindfulness programs. Salesforce, in particular, has gone even further. It has a 1-1-1 program where 1% of tech, people and resources are dedicated to philanthropic purposes. It also has an a strong and longstanding support for mindfulness and meditation originating with its CEO and it is creating mindfulness pods in all its new offices.

Note: Salesforce will be used frequently as an example because it of its prominent commitment to mindfulness from its CEO and because it is highly successful. However, the points here apply here irrespective of the scale or level of mindfulness of the business.

The Challenge

These companies operate within a digital sector that is highly competitive. Furthermore, this sector is itself located with a wider economy and society culturally oriented towards competition, ambition and success.1 Pressure, stress and anxiety are omnipresent – exemplified in a mentality of “win or die trying” and “kill or be killed”. For example, the title of Intel CEO Andy Grove memoir was “Only the Paranoid Survive”.

This can make it hard to develop and sustain a mindful culture and way of being. Adoption of mindful practices may be shallow – framed within a mindset of “return on investment” where mindfulness is used to make “fitter, happier, more productive” employees.

For example, at Salesforce annual dreamforce there are sessions organized by the Wisdom Labs Chief Science Officer described as “hacks” to quickly get your energy back: “Overworked? Not enough sleep? In this session, Dr. Pal will show you a mindful hack to quickly rejuvenate and re-energize yourself during your busy workday.”

The digital economy – why is it especially tough?

Digital products like software are at base simply information. Information is costlessly copyable – unlike traditional physical things like bread or cars. At the same time, making the first copy of a piece of information like a software application has large fixed costs.

Large fixed costs combined with costless copying mean huge economies of scale. Along with network/platform effects, this makes information markets a winner-takes-all proposition – they are like the Olympic hundred metres races with only one winner and many hundreds who have struggled in vain for glory.

Contrast this with the life of a baker – there can be many bakers, even in a single town. If you are reasonable baker you will always have a living. You do not need to worry that another baker hundreds of miles away can supply your customers and by inventing a cheaper way to make bread and can suddely take away your business and your liveliood.

Digital competition though is like that. It is both exciting and stressful. In many ways it resembles a casino: many enter hopeful, but most leave empty-handed and poorer whilst a lucky few become fabulously rich.

However, unlike a traditional casino, the winners cannot leave but are forced to keep betting time after time. As a result, the CEOs – and staff – of these enterprises face a situation much like the legendary King Damocles. Damocles was rich and powerful but his life was full of anxiety and suffering. This was because he lived with the constant threat of usurption and violent death – whether through assassination or war. One day, a guest remarked enviously on his royal position so that night at supper Damocles placed the guest at dinner underneath a sword suspended by a single thread. “This”, King Damocles said to the guest, “Is what my whole life is really like”.

Obviously, modern CEOs do not face actual death like King Damocles. However, they have to live with the ever present risk of being supplanted by competitors inside or outside their firms. Because of its winner takes all structure, digital competition is particularly tough, ruthless and stressful – especially at the high-end.2

The Question: can digital companies create a mindful, well culture and thrive as businesses?

The situation and the challenge lead us to the following question:

(How) can digital companies create deeply well, mindful cultures and thrive as businesses?

This leads to the bigger question:

How can we create an economy and society in which it is possible to have thriving businesses that are profoundly mindful and well?

An Answer

Summary: transformation of being requires a transformation of the material systems – and vice-versa. Transformation of the “economy” of being requires the transformation of the economy of making. Put conversely: it will be next to impossible to create a deep mindful culture in digital companies if the digital economy around it remains untransformed.

This does not meaning giving up. Rather it means expanding the vision of transformation beyond doing mindfulness in a single company to a transformation of the broader economy.

However, it does mean the immediate answer to the first question is a negative:

How can digital companies create a deeply mindful and well culture and thrive as a business?

In the current digital economy, it is next to impossible. The dog-eat-dog world, the pressure from investors to maintain inflated valuations, the “war for talent”, the general cultural focus on the “next big thing”, “getting rich” and “techno-solutionism” all serve to create an environment that is anti-mindful in key ways: stressed, obsessed with achievement and money, ego-oriented, and short-term.

These pressures are not simply cultural, they flow from the basic structures of the current digital economy. For example, the winner-takes-all dynamic makes it necessary to raise large sums from investors and to target breakneck growth (“grow or die”).3

We can see these pressures and their results concretely today.

Take the example of Dreamforce, Salesforce’s annual event. Substantial efforts have been made to introduce mindfulness. Whole teams of monks and nuns are flown in and space dedicated to their activities.

These efforts are valuable: hundreds of people during the week get a space to calm down and reflect. However they remain an add-on, an additional entertainment – and one in basic conflict with the tenor and purpose of the whole event. Directly outside the meditation spaces music blares away and thousands of people jostle past heading to their next meeting. Wherever you go, visual and auditory noise invade your senses. People are rushed and harried. The organizers are no doubt stressed and anxious as each year needs to get bigger than the last.

Most participants will have no experience of mindful practice and are there to sell and network. Success matters more than wellbeing. In these circumstances, mindfulness – with its tent of monks and nuns – will never be anything more than a sideshow. Not worthless but never transformative – and possibly even a distraction, like a painkiller that soothes us too much and makes us neglect the real source of the problem.

Trying to build a mindful culture on these foundations is like trying to build a cathedral on sand: doomed to failure.

If this approach is impossible, what should we do instead?

The Two Arms of Transformation

First, we need to get deeply present to the previous point. It is potentially highly dissonant: we want to believe we can have both our material success in the current system and spiritual satisfaction at the same time – have our cake and eat it too. It can be disconcerting to see that something must change and that the current basis of our own material success is an obstacle to deeper progress.

We desperately seek our way out of these contradictions. We fall into techno-solutionism whether it is new blockchain based democracy or an EEG headset to make Buddhas overnight. Or, we turn to simple self-justification: no it isn’t so bad and we can change things later.

We must see the need to do something different – even if we personally continue to operate within the old system.

So can we find a different, better way?

Yes we can and it is a form of new middle way: a path between the rat-race and the monastery. It combines joy with purpose, engagement with non-attachment. Transformation of both the economy and of the spirit. There is little entirely new in the ideas – like most good ideas, they are already tried and tested.

The two arms of transformation and their connection.

To find this middle way requires a transformation. This transformation has two “arms” that complement and reinforce each other:

  1. Transformation of being: deep mindfulness – this is the route for the transformation of being.
  2. Transformation of the economy: the current move to an information economy brings both peril and opportunity. Costless, infinite copying combined could be an incredible blessing allowing us to share the wealth of knowledge broadly and accelerate learning and innovation. But to achieve this requires openness: making information freely and openly available to all – and moving away from our current model of exclusive, proprietary control. To make openness possible needs a new funding model that can rewards innovation and creativity without limiting access to their fruits with monopolies. More broadly, we need to strike a new balance between fairness and recognition, between work and leisure to see that our incredible material prosperity and creativty is broadly shared and sustained.

Fundamentally, we need to create a new culture, founded on values that go beyond simply “more”. We need to recognize that the the culture of capitalism has passed its sell-by date – if not capitalism itself. We should recognize that, for example, tolerating greed because of its stimulative effect on our productive efforts is no longer justified or needed – it was never good, and has now, finally, passed beyond even the justification of expediency.

We also emphasize the primacy of being. That is the primacy of the first point above (transformation of being) over the second (transformation of the economy). Both points are important but there is an important sense in which point one has primacy: it takes precedence over the second.

It is important because without a focus on being – being well and whole – it is easy to start trading ends for means: “it is so important what we are doing that we must work fourteen hours days”. “Why can’t people see what we are doing is so important? They must be stupid/angry/wrong …”.

Humans are masters of self-deception and sophistic justification. Leisure becomes laziness, rightness becomes rightheousness, strength becomes stubborness. Without this primacy, success would rapidly be put before wellness and a spiral of compromise would lead, ultimately, to a collapse of the entire effort as we forget ourselves and our true purpose.

Appendix: Concrete proposals

What can we do to implement the above? We suggest concentrating corporate and personal philanthropy on specific efforts to develop new economic and cultural structures. Specifically:

  • Fund / support “deep” mindful efforts and away from “surface mindfulness”. Both types are valuable but we need to get to critical mass for a self-sustaining “alternative” culture and that requires a smaller committed core rather than a larger set of sympathisers.
  • Fund / support efforts focused on changing the economic model at a deep level and especially efforts to create a fully open (and properly funded) information economy. If you want two specific projects:
    • Put $20-30m into developing and promoting the idea of the open information age and desigining open information funds
    • Put substantial monies (e.g. $100m+) into an open information fund (either pharmaceuticals or software)
  • Fund specific alternative communitities trialling different approaches to generating self-sustaining alternative cultures
  • Research the most effective ways to enrol others in these ideas (what does it take?)

Appendix: The Art of Power

Power is good for one thing only: to increase our happiness and the happiness of others. Being peaceful and happy is the most important thing in our lives and yet most of the time we suffer, we run after our cravings, and we look to the past or the future for our happiness.

We know that the bottom line of business is profit. But to profit means “to benefit from.” There are many ways one can benefit from being a bodhisattva. If our work brings about well-being, there’s nothing wrong with making money. It’s possible to make money in a way that is not destructive, that promotes more social justice and more understanding and lessens the suffering that exists all around us. To do this, we need to be free from the pursuit of power, wealth, fame, and sex. These four go together. If you don’t practice mindfulness, you’ll be the victim of these four lures. Looking deeply, we see that it’s possible to work in the corporate world in a way that brings a lot of happiness, both to other people and to us. When we’re doing something for the benefit of all humankind and the environment, our work has meaning. Even if it’s also making money, it has meaning, because it can bring well-being to the world.

Excerpt From: Thich Nhat Hanh. “The Art of Power” Chapter Four

  1. It is interesting that Salesforce’s community platform has the name “success” and is where links to mindfulness sessions at dreamforce lead you – (list of mindfulness sessions at dreamforce). [return]
  2. Returning to Andy Grove the famous long-term CEO of Intel through its growth years. His memoir cum business advice manual: “Only the Paranoid Survive” is a title we can imagine King Damocles choosing if he had ever written a book on Kingship in Ancient Greece. [return]
  3. To explain the logic in more detail: if there is a sole (or very few) winners, then competition is a tournament with a sole winner. Winning is largely a function of effort and luck and how fast you move. Effort and speed are both largely a function of the resources you have to spend whether thoese resources are used to hire talent, engage in marketing or make acquisitions. [return]

Notes on McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary

Notes on McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

This is an exceptional and extraordinary book. Its breadth and learning are awe-inspiring. Its topic of profound importance, its argument fascinating, thought-provoking and compelling. It defies categorisation: it is a work of reasoned ontology that bridges science and philosophy, history and literary criticism. It talks about the most important questions of how we “be in the world”, using reason and language but transcending them, a worthy exemplar of a “finger pointing at the moon”.


1. Brain lateralization exists

Brain lateralization exists i.e. that there are differences in function and consciousness between left and right hemispheres.

2. Brain lateralization is significant

Brain lateralization is significant. Significant not just in the basic sense that, say, language is left-lateralized but in the deeper sense that there is, crudely, a left-brain and right-brain way of seeing and being in the world. (Note: the two hemispheres work in collaboration and almost no function is completely lateralized)

Left-brain: the left brain perceives in pieces, serially. Analytical, logical, dislikes paradox. Focused on the familiar, on categorising. Language and symbols. Grabbing, controlling, goal-oriented (it controls the right hand which is usually dominant).

Right-brain: the right brain is gestalt, it sees as a whole, all at once. It is the source of experiencing and comprehending. It is happy with contradiction, the seat of common-sense. Focused on the new, on discovery, on relations and connectedness (rather than difference and categories). Handles metaphor and music.

3. The left-brain should be the servant of the right brain.

The left-brain should be the servant of the right brain. It is the right brain that sees the world as a whole.

As McGilchrist puts it: the right brain experience goes out into the left brain and then comes back to form a coherent whole in the right brain …

4. But the left brain is taking over

But, at least in western culture, the left brain (or the left brain way of seeing the world) has been taking over. The servant is usurping the master – the emissary has become the master.

We can trace periods where the balance between the hemispheres has changed with the left or right more dominant. Part II of the book provides fascinating argument and evidence for this claim.

[ed: necessarily this section is much more speculative: McGilchrist is talking about vast swathes of human history in all its complexity and then seeking to demonstrate a connection with the initial evidence for hemispherical differences in ways of seeing the world. I see this section as more fascinating than convincing – and as somewhat secondary to the main thrust of the argument. This is something McGilchrist himself acknowledge: “These thoughts [in Part II] are inevitably contingent, to some extent fragmentary and rudimental. [Introduction]”

5. Especially in the West

In the West today “left-hemisphere” ways of thinking and being have taken over (and this a problem because they are mistaken and limited).

How do we understand the world, if there are different versions of it to reconcile? Is it important which models and metaphors we bring to bear on our reality? And, if it is, why has one particular model come to dominate us so badly that we hardly notice its pervasiveness? [Introduction]

6. This is problematic because the left brain creates its own “hall of mirrors”

This is so problematic because the hemispheres literally create [our perception of] the world and so if the left hemisphere takes over it can blind us to its own errors – creating the world in its own image.

Here I suggest that it is as if the left hemisphere, which creates a sort of self-reflexive virtual world, has blocked off the available exits, the ways out of the hall of mirrors, into a reality which the right hemisphere could enable us to understand. In the past, this tendency was counterbalanced by forces from outside the enclosed system of the self-conscious mind; apart from the history incarnated in our culture, and the natural world itself, from both of which we are increasingly alienated, these were principally the embodied nature of our existence, the arts and religion. In our time each of these has been subverted and the routes of escape from the virtual world have been closed off. An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness, has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere.

7. There is room for hope

There is room for hope, not least the existence of other cultures less infected by western left-dominated ways of being.

(My) Conclusion

There is much serious ontology in the book, in fact you could think of the entire book as dedicated to a kind of scientific ontology. Scientific not simply in the sense of using neuroscience but in the way buddhism is scientific: in being critically open-minded, in being based in reason rather than rationality. The position McGilchrist reaches, heavily grounded in phenomenology, is one that is very close to Buddhist ontology e.g. interdependent co-arising [ed: and one I largely agree with]:

”… the world is not independent of our observation of it, attention to it, and interaction with it, …”

“The kind of attention we pay actually alters the world: we are, literally, partners in creation [of the world]”

My Comments

McGilchrist spends half the book (Part I) setting out evidence on differences between the hemispheres and their way of seeing the world. However, ultimately the lateralisation point is secondary to the central argument that there are different ways of seeing the world and that one of these (the right brain version) is preferable / better / more correct.

In this sense the lateralisation analysis serves more as a motivation and basis for enquiry than the main point. For example, the (lateralisation) neuroscience helps us build up a picture of these two different ways of seeing the world which might be difficult otherwise: (from the Introduction) “ … why do I not just deal with mind, and forget about the brain? And in particular why should we be concerned with the brain’s structure? … After all, my pancreas is doing fine, without my being able to remember much about its structure. … [but] the structure of the brain is likely to tell us something we otherwise could not so easily see.”

Connection with Buddhism: there is a huge overlap with Buddhist teaching but one that McGilchrist seems only vaguely aware of. He gets closest to making a connection in a section of the conclusion on “The Oriental Mind” which suggests that Oriental thinking is more right brain and offers hope for the west.

The book also includes one of the most beautiful expositions in a “western style” of the inter-related errors of anti-rational post-modernism and excessive rationality.

… I may at times seem to be sceptical of the tools of analytical discourse … however … I hold absolutely no brief for those who wish to abandon reason or traduce language. … The attempt by some post-modern theoreticians to annex the careful anti-Cartesian scepticism of Heidegger to an anarchic disregard for language and meaning is an inversion of everything that he held important. To say that language holds truth concealed is not to say that language simply serves to conceal truth (though it certainly can do), or, much worse, that there is no such thing as truth (though it may be far from simple). … Equally this book has nothing to offer those who would undermine reason, which, along with imagination, is the most precious thing we owe to the working together of the two hemispheres. My quarrel is only with an excessive and misplaced rationalism which has never been subjected to the judgment of reason, and is in conflict with it. … I am in no sense opposed to science … only to a narrow materialism, which is not intrinsic to science at all. Science is neither more nor less than patient and detailed attention to the world, and is integral to our understanding of it and of ourselves.

Excerpts and Commentary

What follows below are excerpts from particular sections of the book with occasional comments. Note excerpting is somewhat sporadic depending less on the importance or interest of a section and more to the coincidence of reading and having my laptop to hand.

Note on page numbering: the various PDFs I have differ in their total number of pages. My desktop copy has 1094 whilst my mobile has around 868.


This book tells a story about ourselves and the world, and about how we got to be where we are now. While much of it is about the structure of the human brain – the place where mind meets matter – ultimately it is an attempt to understand the structure of the world that the brain has in part created.

Whatever the relationship between consciousness and the brain – unless the brain plays no role in bringing the world as we experience it into being, a position that must have few adherents – its structure has to be significant. It might even give us clues to understanding the structure of the world it mediates, the world we know. So, to ask a very simple question, why is the brain so clearly and profoundly divided? Why, for that matter, are the two cerebral hemispheres asymmetrical? Do they really differ in any important sense? If so, in what way?

I have come to believe that the cerebral hemispheres differ in ways that have meaning. There is a plethora of well-substantiated findings that indicate that there are consistent differences – neuropsychological, anatomical, physiological and chemical, amongst others – between the hemispheres. But when I talk of ‘meaning’, it is not just that I believe there to be a coherent pattern to these differences. That is a necessary first step. I would go further, however, and suggest that such a coherent pattern of differences helps to explain aspects of human experience, and therefore means something in terms of our lives, and even helps explain the trajectory of our common lives in the Western world.

My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognisably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture.


Here he sets out in summary much of the thesis about brain lateralization and its relation to “ways of being” in the world.

What is it they do that is so different? Well, I will argue, nothing much: it is quite true that almost everything we once thought went on in one or other hemisphere alone is now known to go on in both.5 So where does that leave the pursuit of hemisphere differences? Right on track. The whole problem is that we are obsessed, because of what I argue is our affiliation to left-hemisphere modes of thought, with ‘what’ the brain does – after all, isn’t the brain a machine, and like any machine, the value of it lies in what it does? I happen to think this machine model gets us only some of the way; and like a train that drops one in the middle of the night far from one’s destination, a train of thought that gets one only some of the way is a liability. The difference, I shall argue, is not in the ‘what’, but in the ‘how’ – by which I don’t mean ‘the means by which’ (machine model again), but ‘the manner in which’, something no one ever asked of a machine. I am not interested purely in ‘functions’ but in ways of being, something only living things can have.

Right is whole, left is parts

One of the more durable generalisations about the hemispheres has been the finding that the left hemisphere tends to deal more with pieces of information in isolation, and the right hemisphere with the entity as a whole, the so-called Gestalt – possibly underlying and helping to explain the apparent verbal/visual dichotomy, since words are processed serially, while pictures are taken in all at once.

One of the more durable generalisations about the hemispheres has been the finding that the left hemisphere tends to deal more with pieces of information in isolation, and the right hemisphere with the entity as a whole, the so-called Gestalt – possibly underlying and helping to explain the apparent verbal/visual dichotomy, since words are processed serially, while pictures are taken in all at once

Right is for newness, left for the familiar

What if one hemisphere is, apparently, attuned to whatever is new? Is that, too, just a specialised form of ‘information processing’? What role does imitation play in releasing us from determinism (a question I return to in different forms throughout the book)? I am not, of course, the first to ask such questions, and they undoubtedly admit of more than one answer, and more than one type of answer. But, while only a fool would claim to have definitive answers, I shall make some suggestions that I hope may encourage others to think differently about ourselves, our history and ultimately our relationship with the world in which we live.

The hemispheres provide different attention

Things change according to the stance we adopt towards them, the type of attention we pay to them, the disposition we hold in relation to them. This is important because the most fundamental difference between the hemispheres lies in the type of attention they give to the world.

Great point about non-duality in our thinking – i.e. crude, absolutist materialism or nihilistic, relativistic idealism

But it’s also important because of the widespread assumption in some quarters that there are two alternatives: either things exist ‘out there’ and are unaltered by the machinery we use to dig them up, or to tear them apart (naïve realism, scientific materialism); or they are subjective phenomena which we create out of our own minds, and therefore we are free to treat them in any way we wish, since they are after all, our own creations (naïve idealism, post-modernism). These positions are not by any means as far apart as they look, and a certain lack of respect is evident in both. In fact I believe there is something that exists apart from ourselves, but that we play a vital part in bringing it into being.6 A central theme of this book is the importance of our disposition towards the world and one another, as being fundamental in grounding what it is that we come to have a relationship with, rather than the other way round. The kind of attention we pay actually alters the world: we are, literally, partners in creation. This means we have a grave responsibility, a word that captures the reciprocal nature of the dialogue we have with whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves. I will look at what philosophy in our time has had to say about these issues. Ultimately I believe that many of the disputes about the nature of the human world can be illuminated by an understanding that there are two fundamentally different ‘versions’ delivered to us by the two hemispheres, both of which can have a ring of authenticity about them, and both of which are hugely valuable; but that they stand in opposition to one another, and need to be kept apart from one another – hence the bihemispheric structure of the brain.

And a beautiful defense of true reason and science and the need to avoid both anti-rational post-modernism and rational reductivism

Because I am involved in redressing a balance, I may at times seem to be sceptical of the tools of analytical discourse. I hope, however, it will be obvious from what I say that I hold absolutely no brief for those who wish to abandon reason or traduce language. The exact opposite is the case. Both are seriously under threat in our age, though I believe from diametrically opposed factions. The attempt by some post-modern theoreticians to annex the careful anti-Cartesian scepticism of Heidegger to an anarchic disregard for language and meaning is an inversion of everything that he held important. To say that language holds truth concealed is not to say that language simply serves to conceal truth (though it certainly can do), or, much worse, that there is no such thing as truth (though it may be far from simple). But equally we should not be blind to the fact that language is also traduced and disregarded by many of those who never question language at all, and truth too easily claimed by those who see the subject as unproblematic. It behoves us to be sceptical. Equally this book has nothing to offer those who would undermine reason, which, along with imagination, is the most precious thing we owe to the working together of the two hemispheres. My quarrel is only with an excessive and misplaced rationalism which has never been subjected to the judgment of reason, and is in conflict with it. I hope it will not be necessary for me to emphasise, too, that I am in no sense opposed to science, which, like its sister arts, is the offspring of both hemispheres only to a narrow materialism, which is not intrinsic to science at all. Science is neither more nor less than patient and detailed attention to the world, and is integral to our understanding of it and of ourselves.

Lovely summary of our conflicted nature and the value of examining it

… the conflicts … between will and desire, between intention and action, and broader disjunctions between whole ways of conceiving the world in which we live – are the proper concern, not just of psychiatrists and psychologists, but of philosophers, and of artists of all kinds, and of each one of us in daily life.

Part I


Empathy and theory of mind

Self-awareness, empathy, identification with others, and more generally inter-subjective processes, are largely dependent upon … right hemisphere resources.’194 When we put ourselves in others’ shoes, we are using the right inferior parietal lobe, and the right lateral prefrontal cortex, which is involved in inhibiting the automatic tendency to espouse one’s own point of view.195 In circumstances of right-hemisphere activation, subjects are more favourably disposed towards others and more readily convinced by arguments in favour of positions that they have not previously supported.196

Assuming you are autistic that means you are more in your left than than in your right hemisphere (equivalently you are more left brain than right brain). It explains much – eg a propensity to cataloging things such as datasets.

Aside: given right hemisphere concern with “living things” and left with inanimate I wonder where robots and computers go.

We have an unconscious, involuntary urge to imitate someone we are watching carrying out an action – so much so that, especially if it’s something we’ve practised ourselves, the empathic entrainment is actually stronger than the voluntary desire to do something we’d like to see happen. But this is true only if we think it is a real person that’s acting. If we think it’s a computer, we just are not engaged.201

But is this changing as computers become more lifelike?

Reason versus rationality

That the precuneus is involved is in itself interesting, because the precuneus, a centre that lies deep inside the parietal lobe, is deeply connected both with emotion – it forms part of the limbic system – and the sense of the self. It is one of the brain’s most consistently ‘hot’ spots, with a high resting metabolic rate, and it goes quiet in altered states of consciousness where the sense of self is no longer active, such as sleep, anaesthesia and vegetative states. It seems to play an important role in episodic memory, which is critical for personal identity, and in adopting the first person perspective.325

Music and Time

Music lives in right hemisphere even though language is in the left

Music and our physiology:

We are all aware of the many ways in which music affects us physically through our emotions. Musical phrases act like metaphors emanating from, and enormously expanding the meaning of, movement in and of the body: rising, falling, pulsing, breathing. Many features of music, including obviously syncopations, but also melodic appoggiaturas and enharmonic changes, set up patterns of expectation which are ultimately either confirmed or disappointed;381 and this process leads to physiological reactions such as alterations in breathing, or changes in heart rate, in blood pressure, and even in temperature, as well as bringing us out in a sweat, bringing tears to our eyes, or making our hair stand on end.382 Such changes are again mediated through the right hemisphere’s vital connection with subcortical centres, with the hypothalamus, and with the body in general.

On sadness and music:

It has been said that music, like poetry, is intrinsically sad,383 and a survey of music from many parts of the world would bear that out – not, of course, that there is no joyful music, but that even such music often appears to be joy torn from the teeth of sadness, a sort of holiday of the minor key. It is what we would expect in view of the emotional timbre of the right hemisphere; and there is a stronger affinity between the right hemisphere and the minor key, as well as between the left hemisphere and the major key.384 The pre-Socratic philosopher Gorgias wrote that ‘awe [phrike] and tearful pity and mournful desire enter those who listen to poetry’, and at this time poetry and song were one.385

Bach and contrapuntal music

While we are gathering new information, the right hemisphere is responsible, but once whatever it is becomes thoroughly ‘known’, familiar, it is taken over by the left hemisphere.406 The discovery that the contrapuntal music of J. S. Bach causes a strong right-hemisphere activation even in trained musicians is fascinating. It was explained by the researchers who made the finding on the basis that a range of melodic contours needs to be maintained in awareness simultaneously, requiring the right hemisphere’s greater capacity to hold experience in working memory.407 While that may be right, an alternative explanation might lie in the impossibility of attending to all parts of such music in its entirety, so that it can never be experienced in exactly the same way on different hearings. Because it is never finally captured, it is always new. And the two explanations are perhaps not so different, since the left hemisphere ‘capture’ that results in inauthenticity is possible only by limiting the scope of what is attended to.

The next paragraphy follows on but is worth taking separately as it flows on its own with aphoristic, allusive yet penetrating lucidity:

Music – like narrative, like the experience of our lives as we live them – unfolds in time. The movement of time is what makes music what it is. Not just that it has ictus and rhythm; its structure extends through and across time, depending on memory to hold it together.

Time is the context that gives meaning to everything in this world, and conversely everything that has meaning for us in this world, everything that has a place in our lives, exists in time. This is not true of abstractions and re- presentations of entities, but all that is is subject to time. The sense of time passing is associated with sustained attention, and even if for that reason alone, it is only to be expected that this arises in the right hemisphere, subserved by the right prefrontal cortex and inferior parietal lobe.408

It is a great illustration of the wonderful mix of poetical philosophy and “hard” aseptic science that is a constant feature of this marvellous book.

The section concludes with this brilliantly constructed climax:

Music takes place in time. Yet music also has the capacity to make us stand outside time. As George Steiner put it, ‘music is … time made free of temporality’.420 Equally it works through the body, but transports us beyond the world of the merely physical: it is highly particular, and yet seems to speak of things that are universal.421 Perhaps this going ‘through’ a thing to find its opposite is an aspect of the right-hemisphere world, in which ‘opposites’ are not incompatible, an aspect of its roundness, rather than linearity. However, I would say, at the risk of pushing language to or beyond its proper limits, that time itself is (what the left hemisphere would call) paradoxical in nature, and that music does not so much free time from temporality as bring out an aspect that is always present within time, its intersection with a moment which partakes of eternity. Similarly it does not so much use the physical to transcend physicality, or use particularity to transcend the particular, as bring out the spirituality latent in what we conceive as physical existence, and uncover the universality that is, as Goethe spent a lifetime trying to express, always latent in the particular. It is also a feature of music in every known culture that it is used to communicate with the supernatural, with whatever is by definition above, beyond, ‘Other than’, our selves.422

Self-awareness and emotional timbre

The right hemisphere is also more realistic about how it stands in relation to the world at large, less grandiose, more self-aware, than the left hemisphere.452 The left hemisphere is ever optimistic, but unrealistic about its short-comings.

Denial is a left-hemisphere speciality: in states of relative right-hemisphere inactivation, in which there is therefore a bias toward the left hemisphere, subjects tend to evaluate themselves optimistically, view pictures more positively, and are more apt to stick to their existing point of view.467 In the presence of a right-hemisphere stroke, the left hemisphere is ‘crippled by naively optimistic forecasting of outcomes’.468 It is always a winner: winning is associated with activation of the left amygdala, losing with right amygdala activation.469


Before embarking on this chapter, I suggested that there were two ways of being in the world, both of which were essential. One was to allow things to be present to us in all their embodied particularity, with all their changeability and impermanence, and their interconnectedness, as part of a whole which is forever in flux. In this world we, too, feel connected to what we experience, part of that whole, not confined in subjective isolation from a world that is viewed as objective. The other was to step outside the flow of experience and ‘experience’ our experience in a special way: to re- present the world in a form that is less truthful, but apparently clearer, and therefore cast in a form which is more useful for manipulation of the world and one another. This world is explicit, abstracted, compartmentalised, fragmented, static (though its ‘bits’ can be re-set in motion, like a machine), essentially lifeless. From this world we feel detached, but in relation to it we are powerful.

… granted that the contributions made by the left hemisphere, to language and systematic thought in particular, are invaluable. Our talent for division, for seeing the parts, is of staggering importance – second only to our capacity to transcend it, in order to see the whole. These gifts of the left hemisphere have helped us achieve nothing less than civilisation itself, with all that that means. Even if we could abandon them, which of course we can’t, we would be fools to do so, and would come off infinitely the poorer. There are siren voices that call us to do exactly that, certainly to abandon clarity and precision (which, in any case, importantly depend on both hemispheres), and I want to emphasise that I am passionately opposed to them. We need the ability to make fine discriminations, and to use reason appropriately. But these contributions need to be made in the service of something else, that only the right hemisphere can bring. Alone they are destructive. And right now they may be bringing us close to forfeiting the civilisation they helped to create.

What about the fact that we could use non verbal means to communicate …


p. 252 Wisdom as something that arises from intention but not through will or rule following – it requires a kind of active passivity.

I described as ‘apparently passive’ the openness of the right hemisphere to whatever is. That is because, in the absence of an act of will, this is how the left hemisphere sees it. But there is a wise passivity that enables things to come about less by what is done than by what is not done, that opens up possibility where activity closes it down.



A succint encapsulation of a commitment to meaningful enquiry and that there is a reality out there whilst acknowledging our limitations (reverbabative, balanced, judgment over science, reasonable reason over absolutism either of science or religion) p.382-3

I take it that there is something that exists outside the mind. One has to have a starting point, and if you do not believe at leastthat, I have nothing to say, not least because, if you are right, you are not there for me to say it to. The relationship of our brains to that something whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves could be of four kinds: (1) no relationship at all – which returns us to solipsism, since my brain would be the sole source of everything I experienced; (2) receptive – in the sense that, perhaps like a radio set, the brain picked up at least something of whatever it was from out there, and that became what is experienced; (3) generative – in the sense that the brain created at least something of the whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves; or (4) reverberative, that is to say, both receptive and generative – both picking up, receiving, perceiving, and in the process making, giving back, creating ‘whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves but includes ourselves’. I am simply going to state at this point that I adopt the last of these alternatives. Of course, which is right is a terribly important question for philosophy, but if such a thing is susceptible of proof, I can’t prove it. All I can say is that all the evidence available to me as a living, thinking, experiencing human being leads me to that conclusion.

The Process of Reintegration

[p.390 / 1094]

The left hemisphere knows things the right hemisphere does not know, just as the right knows things of which the left hemisphere is ignorant. But it is only, as I have tried to suggest in earlier chapters, the right hemisphere that is in direct contact with the embodied lived world: the left hemisphere world is, by comparison, a virtual, bloodless affair. In this sense, the left hemisphere is ‘parasitic’ on the right. It does not itself have life: its life comes from the right hemisphere, to which it can only say ‘no’ or not say ‘no’.

[p.391] [Romanticism] [it] is the only term we have to refer to a philosophical, as much as cultural, revolution which heralded the beginnings of a reawareness of the power of metaphorical thought, of the limitations of classical, non-paraconsistent logic, and the adoption of non-mechanistic ways of thinking about the world, which belatedly enabled us to catch up with ideas that have been for centuries, if not millennia, current in Eastern cultures. With the advent of Romanticism, paradox became once more not a sign of error, but, as it had been seen by Western philosophers before Plato, and by all the major schools of thought in the East before and since, as a sign of the necessary limitation of our customary modes of language and thought, to be welcomed, rather than rejected, on the path towards truth. ‘Paradox is everything simultaneously good and great’, wrote Friedrich Schlegel.96


I have expressed this reintegration in terms of a ‘return’ to the right hemisphere. This risks suggesting that the achievements of the left hemisphere’s interventions are lost or nullified, reduced only to a remembrance to be borne in mind when looking at the new whole achieved by the right hemisphere, as though one were looking at the same whole as before, only with new eyes. This would be like a child taking a watch to bits and putting it together again. The only significant sense in which the reintegrated watch would now be different would be in the child’s newfound knowledge of its constituent parts; an important difference for the child, to be sure, but not effectively altering the watch. Once again we are misled by the metaphor of a mechanism, a watch, that is, at least in one sense, no more than the sum of its parts.

Instead, the pattern I would adopt to explain the way in which this process occurs in the bihemispheric apprehension of the world is that of Hegel’s Aufhebung. The word, often translated as sublation, literally means a ‘lifting up’ of something, and refers to the way in which the earlier stages of an organic process, although superseded by those that come after, are not repudiated by them, even though the later stages are incompatible with the earlier ones. In this sense the earlier stage is ‘lifted up’ into the subsequent stage both in the sense that it is ‘taken up into’ or ‘subsumed’ into the succeeding stage, and in the sense that it remains present in, but transformed by, a ‘higher’ level of the process. In a famous passage near the opening of the Preface to The Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel illustrates it by reference to the development of a plant:

The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole.108 Thus what is offered by the left hemisphere should be and needs to be aufgehoben by the right hemisphere, not cancelling the left hemisphere’s contribution, but taking it further, by drawing it back into the realm of unification (in fact in German aufgehoben positively includes the idea of being preserved, as well as transformed).

Unification of entities and the dissolution of self (“interbeing”) [p.404]:

Rather than separate entities in a vacuum, we might think of individual entities as dense nodes within some infinitely stretchable or distensible viscous substance, some existential goo – neither ultimately separable nor ultimately confounded, though neither without identity nor without the sense of ultimate union.

This idea explains the apparently paradoxical attempt according to the spiritual practices of all traditions to ‘annihilate’ the self. Why would one want to do such a thing, if the point of creation was to produce the infinite variety embodied in the myriad selves of all the unique existing beings in the created world? Would this not be just to strive to reverse the creative process, and return from Being to Nothing? Instead what I understand by this miscalled ‘annihilation’ of the self is a sacrifice of the boundaries which once defined the self, not in vitiation of the self, but in its kenosis, a transformation whereby it is emptied out into a whole which is larger than itself.112 So it is that neither the bud nor the blossom is repudiated by, but rather aufgehoben in, the fruit.


The left hemisphere is competitive, and its concern, its prime motivation, is power. If the working relationship were to become disturbed, so that the left hemisphere appeared to have primacy or became the end point or final staging post on the ‘processing’ of experience, the world would change into something quite different. And we can say fairly clearly what that would be like: it would be relatively mechanical, an assemblage of more or less disconnected ‘parts’; it would be relatively abstract and disembodied; relatively distanced from fellow-feeling; given to explicitness; utilitarian in ethic; over-confident of its own take on reality, and lacking insight into its problems – the neuropsychological evidence is that these are all aspects of the left hemisphere world as compared with the right.

Looks at neurological and phenomenlogical evidence from split brain patients as a way to look at what happens when one hemisphere is no longer balanced by the other.


Nonetheless, in the first months following surgery, split- brain patients reported some rather disconcerting experiences. These took the form of an apparent conflict of will, displayed in so-called intermanual conflict. Such was the case of a man who found himself in the unfortunate position of going to embrace his wife with one arm and pushing her away with the other.5 Other patients with disruption of the corpus callosum have reported similar experiences, for example:

On several occasions while driving, the left hand reached up and grabbed the steering wheel from the right hand. The problem was persistent and severe enough that she had to give up driving. She reported instances in which the left hand closed doors the right hand had opened, unfolded sheets the right had folded, snatched money the right had offered to a store cashier, and disrupted her reading by turning pages and closing books.6

Or: ‘I open the closet door. I know what I want to wear. As I reach for something with my right hand, my left comes up and takes something different. I can’t put it down if it’s in my left hand. I have to call my daughter.’7 Notice that it is always the left hand that is ‘misbehaving’: I will return to that shortly.

Aside: corpus callosum is about keeping hemispheres separate – and in equilibrium. Not necessarily in connecting them. In allowing one hemisphere to inhibit the other.


Ingenious metaphor about the possible developing relationship between the hemispheres.

What do we know of the normal working relationship of the hemispheres, in those whose brains have not been artificially split? Is it one of harmony or discord? The question is not simple. Just as inhibition may be maintained in the interests of co-operation, co-operation may be maintained in the interests of competition: where two co-operate, the first may do so in a reciprocal spirit, while the second does so out of self-interest, that self- interest benefitting from the generosity of spirit of the first. Moreover we have to distinguish between different levels of a relationship. Think of the relationship between two colleagues, who together run a small business. Which relationship are we talking about? At the simplest level one could describe the business partners’ day-to-day mode of working together. So, for example, one could say that they share an office, and, what’s more, share a breadth of training and experience in the work that they do, so that both can field enquiries. Each is acknowledged, nonetheless, to have special interests and expertise, and accordingly, where practicable, they split the work along agreed lines, especially where the work is complex; but where it would be quicker or more expedient, because, say, one of them is out of the office and an immediate response is needed, the other will step in and do whatever is required. At this level, and in this sense, the relationship appears pretty balanced and unproblematic. But that might not be the relationship I’m thinking of. I mean, how do their roles interact, and how does each contribute to the work of the company as a whole? This is a rather different question, and takes us beyond the day-to- day, to something more like ‘month-to-month’ mode, a middle level. Here, say, it might turn out that Franny is particularly interested in, and gifted at, bringing in new business; Fred, being a bit more of a backroom type, is better at doing the accounting and IT work. Without new business coming in, the outfit will fold; equally they will hardly survive without proper accountancy and IT support. So each needs the other. However, let’s say that Fred has decided that the future lies in developing new and better accounting software systems, that that’s what really matters. Anyone, he says to himself, can find the business; it takes someone special to keep the figures balanced, the systems running and ticking over. As a result Fred spends much of his time using the business data to help him develop more sophisticated software, and doesn’t prioritise getting the figures ready for Franny’s meetings with clients. He is given to feeling superior to Franny, telling himself there’s nothing much she does that anyone couldn’t do. At the same time Franny resents Fred spending so much of his time on what appear to be technicalities, freeloading on her ability to forge connections and make deals, and then letting her down at the last minute. There is an atmosphere in the office: bad-tempered exchanges, cool silences. And that represents another aspect of their relationship. But there is a third level to this relationship; not the day- to-day, not even the month-to-month, but the long-term plan, which I just happen to have heard about. Unknown to Franny, Fred has decided he is going to take the company’s data, ditch Franny, do a moonlight flit and start up an IT business all of his own. I’m well aware that hemispheres are not people. Nor is this vignette supposed to sum up the relationship between the cerebral hemispheres. It is designed to do one thing only: to suggest that there would be different answers to the question how the hemispheres relate depending on the level at which we are looking. We need to look at the lowest level, the ‘day-to-day’ nitty-gritty of how they get through the work together – who answers the telephone. We need also to step back a bit, to the middle level, and look at how their roles complement one another in constructing our world – in theory, and, which may not be the same thing, in practice. And we should not forget to look at the long-term strategy, something that an outsider might know about before one of the partners.

At a global level we can prefer one or the other hemisphere

Some interesting sidelights on the relationship between the hemispheres can be seen by examining the way in which these individual differences affect competition for the control of visual attention. In experiments where a task is carried out requiring attention to one’s non-favoured visual field (the field contralateral to one’s non-favoured hemisphere), while irrelevant, distracting information is presented to the favoured visual field, those subjects with a characteristic left-hemisphere bias found that the already strong tendency for the left hemisphere to prioritise the right visual field, and downplay the left visual field, was enhanced. This meant that the irrelevant information on the right interfered with the task going on in the left visual field (controlled by the right hemisphere). But for those with a characteristic right-hemisphere bias, when conditions were reversed, no such competitive effects were seen: irrelevant information in the right hemisphere’s favoured left visual field did not interfere with the subject’s ability to attend to the matter in hand going on, now, in the right visual field (the field favoured by the left hemisphere).33

This suggests a more even distribution of concern in the right hemisphere than in the left. We know that the right hemisphere ‘looks out’ for both hemispheres’ territory, not just its own, like the left hemisphere. But this goes further: having a ‘utilisation bias’ in favour of the left hemisphere intensifies this effect, whereas having a similar bias in favour of the right hemisphere does nothing to upset the even-handedness of its concern. This resonates with another well-established research finding: that transfer of information from left hemisphere to right hemisphere takes place more slowly than transfer from right to left.34 And, be it noted, this is regardless of whether the task is by nature better suited to the right hemisphere or left hemisphere.35

Level Two


The image suggests, of course, that the two hemispheres have wills that may not always be in harmony. How legitimate is it to think of the hemispheres as having wills in this sense? Bogen refers to two ‘crucial facts’: that ‘it takes only one hemisphere to have a mind’, and that ‘hemispheres can sustain the activity of two separate spheres of consciousness following commissurotomy’.42 Sperry writes that, in commissurotomy patients, each hemisphere can be shown to experience its own private sensations, percepts, thoughts, and memories that are inaccessible to awareness in the other hemisphere. Introspective verbal accounts from the vocal left hemisphere report a striking lack of awareness in this hemisphere for mental functions that have just been

performed immediately before in the right hemisphere. In this respect each surgically disconnected hemisphere appears to have a mind of its own, but each cut off from, and oblivious to, conscious events in the partner hemisphere.43 And it is not just like this in surgically disconnected hemispheres. Temporary inactivation of one or other hemisphere, through the Wada test, produces similar results. Even without such specialised procedures, sometimes the brain of the ordinary subject shows disconnection comparable to that found in split-brain subjects.44 If there are separate sensations, percepts, thoughts and memories, as well as separate ways of dealing with all of these, it would hardly be surprising if there were separate desires formed, separate wills, to each hemisphere – and we know from the split-brain subjects’ experience that this is the case.

Consciousness as a tree, not a bird p. 436:

Panksepp sees consciousness as something that begins very deep indeed, in the so-called peri-aqueductal grey matter in the midbrain, and ‘migrates’ through higher regions of the brain, especially the cingulate, temporal and frontal regions of the cortex.47 So he sees it as something that is not all or nothing, but has a continuous existence, transforming itself as it travels upwards, through the branches, to what he calls, by analogy with the forest canopy, the ‘cerebral canopy’, until in the frontal cortices it becomes high-level cognitive awareness.48 I like this image of the cerebral ‘canopy’ because it reminds us that consciousness is not a bird, as it often seems to be in the literature – hovering, detached, coming in at the top level and alighting on the brain somewhere in the frontal lobes – but a tree, its roots deep inside us. It reinforces the nature of consciousness not as an entity, but as a process.49

Consciousness and self-consciousness:

The most robust distinction that can be made, however, although it is itself far from unproblematic, is that between self-consciousness and consciousness ‘pure and simple’. But what is consciousness without self- consciousness? We cannot tell whether another creature has self-consciousness – or, strictly, consciousness at all – so we are obliged to introspect on our own experience. However, such introspection is by definition self-conscious, and so we will not get to know what it is like to be conscious without being self-conscious by this route, either. One can however distinguish between times when one is aware of oneself as the object of attention and times when one is simply aware of being. This is the closest I can get to the distinction. It has the double advantage of coinciding with what we normally mean by ‘self-consciousness’ in everyday parlance; and of pinpointing the abnormality in subjects whose psychopathology, as in many anxiety disorders, especially social phobia, is of excessive self- consciousness.

Self and awareness and non-existence of self:

More specifically, the idea that things come into being through an apophatic process (see p. 197) also casts light, I believe, on the problem of the self, and helps to confirm this view. Hume introspected and found no sign of the self, just a string of sense impressions [note strong similarity with Buddhist ontology]. Fichte thought that was quite natural. The self, he believed, would not emerge in cognition: the more absorbed you are in the process of attending, the less aware you are of yourself as the absorber. It is only when there is some kind of resistance that one becomes aware of the self, ‘not as an object but as that which is obtruded upon by some kind of recalcitrant reality’.58 This is as if things become, in Heidegger’s terms, vorhanden, separate from us, and we feel ourselves separate from them. In Merleau-Ponty’s terms, it has to do with the plane of focus: whether the ‘I’ is transparent or opaque. I come into being as a self through the experience of resistance, as a lake is bounded by the shore which makes it a lake. These associations with opacity and Vorhandenheit again suggest that the self-conscious self emerges only when the focus of left-hemisphere attention is brought to bear on the right-hemisphere world.

Consciousness goes deep – it is not just in the canopy but in the roots (and an interesting neuroscience result) [p.446-447]:

Patients with conditions such as Parkinson’s disease can now be treated by a procedure known as deep brain stimulation, which involves surgically implanting electrodes in the subthalamic nuclei and stimulating them for brief periods (a painless procedure that is carried out, and indeed must be carried out, with the patient fully conscious). Professor Yves Agid and his team at the Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris found that by minute variation in the position of the electrode, they caused a patient to change from the impassive, immobile, ‘switched- off’ Parkinsonian state, to one of severe depression. In video recordings their patient can be seen grimacing, holding her head in her hands, and expressing feelings of sadness, guilt, uselessness, and hopelessness: ‘I’m falling down in my head, I no longer wish to live, to see anything, hear anything, feel anything …’ When asked why she was crying and if she felt pain, she responded: ‘No, I’m fed up with life, I’ve had enough …I don’t want to live any more, I’m disgusted with life …Everything is useless …worthless: I’m scared in this world.’ When asked why she was sad, she replied: ‘I’m tired. I want to hide in a corner …I’m crying over myself, of course …I’m hopeless, why am I bothering you …’ Less than 90 seconds after stimulation was stopped, the depression disappeared. For the next five minutes she was in a mildly hypomanic state, laughing and joking with the examiner, and playfully pulling his tie. By moving the probe minutely, she became frankly hypomanic, appearing not just cheerful, but being ‘over the moon’, and restlessly active – all within minutes or seconds.60

Experience that is completely ‘fused’ or unified in its automatic recruitment of cognitive, emotional and motor aspects of being, and which is experienced at the highest phenomenological level as an integrated phenomenon, with thoughts about the uselessness of carrying on living, feelings of deep sadness and gestures of despair, is already coherently constituted (and ‘ready to go’) at this low level in the tree of consciousness. It is not as if moving the electrode caused incoherent experience, such as the motor restrictions of Parkinson’s disease, with the cognitions of mania and the affect of depression, parts without relationship that would need to await the highest levels of cortical function for integration. Experiential wholes, that are completely coherent across all realms, and affect us at the most conscious as well as unconscious levels, are already present well below consciousness.

Level 3

Important summary: one consciousness, two wills (or more), one associated with each hemispheres. Wills may be in conflict and each hemisphere has a special flavour. Wills may be in conflict – and probably are.

… with one consciousness we can have more than one will, expressive of more than one aim. … [T]he two hemispheres do have different concerns, goals and values, and that these are therefore likely to be expressed in different wills; … a conflict of wills may be exactly what we find. … on a range of both philosophical and neuropsychological grounds the right hemisphere has primacy … [On the] millisecond-to-millisecond, level, the most obvious fact about the relationship between the hemispheres is that it depends on separation and mutual inhibition, which is coherent with the view of the relationship between the phenomenological worlds of the two hemispheres, according to which each must, for different reasons, remain ignorant of the other. At the second level, that of their more global interaction over longer time periods that form the basis of conscious experience, the evidence is that the relationship is not symmetrical or reciprocal, with the advantage being taken by the left hemisphere.

There is therefore a conflict of asymmetries.

Full version without excerpting:

To recap. More than one will (and a fortiori more than one set of goals or values) does not mean more than one consciousness: so with one consciousness we can have more than one will, expressive of more than one aim. In Chapters 2 to 4, I suggested that the two hemispheres, as two vast coherent neurological systems, each capable of sustaining consciousness on their own, do have different concerns, goals and values, and that these are therefore likely to be expressed in different wills; and in this chapter I have put forward evidence suggesting that a conflict of wills may be exactly what we find. In Chapter 5, I showed that on a range of both philosophical and neuropsychological grounds the right hemisphere has primacy, and that, though the left hemisphere has a valuable role, its products need to be returned to the realm of the right hemisphere and once more integrated into a new whole, greater than the sum of its parts. Earlier in this chapter I showed that on the first, millisecond-to-millisecond, level, the most obvious fact about the relationship between the hemispheres is that it depends on separation and mutual inhibition, which is coherent with the view of the relationship between the phenomenological worlds of the two hemispheres, according to which each must, for different reasons, remain ignorant of the other. At the second level, that of their more global interaction over longer time periods that form the basis of conscious experience, the evidence is that the relationship is not symmetrical or reciprocal, with the advantage being taken by the left hemisphere.

There is therefore a conflict of asymmetries.

Ontological Asymmetry

Two reasons right hemisphere should predominate:

  1. Ontological asymmetry: “In favour of the right hemisphere there is what might be calledontological asymmetry (the primacy of the right hemisphere’s interaction with whatever exists).”
  2. Asymmetry of function: “Also in favour of the right hemisphere is an asymmetry of function, which follows from the first asymmetry. In the functioning together of the two hemispheres, the products of the left hemisphere need to be returned to the realm of the right hemisphere in order to live. While experience is enriched by the opposite process, whereby the products of the right hemisphere are sent to the left hemisphere for ‘unpacking’, there is no necessity for that process. One process is literally vital: the other is not.”

However, right hemisphere is not favoured as it should be, in fact the balance of power lies with the left:

These two asymmetries indicate where the interhemispheric balance of power ought to lie, and indeed needs to lie: with the right hemisphere. But it does not. There are three other asymmetries which mean that in fact the balance of power is doomed to be dangerously skewed towards the lesser hemisphere, the left. These are an ‘asymmetry of means’, ‘asymmetry of structure’ and ‘asymmetry of interaction’.

  • Asymmetry of means: “The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates, because it is most accessible: closest to the self-aware, self-inspecting intellect. Conscious experience is at the focus of our attention, usually therefore dominated by the left hemisphere. It benefits from an asymmetry of means. The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so that the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere which speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere.”
  • Asymmetry of structure: “And then there is an asymmetry of structure. There is an asymmetry inherent in this system building, namely the difficulty of escape from a self-enclosed system. The system itself closes off any possible escape mechanisms. The existence of a system of thought dependent on language automatically devalues whatever cannot be expressed in language; the process of reasoning discounts whatever cannot be reached by reasoning. In everyday life we may be willing to accept the existence of a reality beyond language or rationality, but we do so because our mind as a whole can intuit that aspects of our experience lie beyond either of these closed systems. But in its own terms there is no way that language can break out of the world language creates – except by allowing language to go beyond itself in poetry; just as in its own terms rationality cannot break out of rationality, to an awareness of the necessity of something else, something other than itself, to underwrite its existence – except by following Gödel’s logic to its conclusion. Language in itself (to this extent the post- modern position is correct) can only refer to itself, and reason can only elaborate, ‘unpack’ the premises it starts with.”
  • Asymmetry of interaction: “Finally there is an asymmetry of interaction. It seems to me that the overall way in which the hemispheres relate has critically shifted from a form of what might be called stable dynamic equilibrium to an inequilibrium. When there are two necessary but mutually opposed entities in operation together, an imbalance in favour of one can, and often will, be corrected by a shift in favour of the other – a swing of the pendulum. But negative feedback can become positive feedback, and in the left hemisphere there is an inbuilt tendency for it to do so.63”
Asymmetry of means

Sequential analytic ‘processing’ also makes the left hemisphere the hemisphere par excellence of sequential discourse, and that gives it the most extraordinary advantage in being heard. It is like being the Berlusconi of the brain, a political heavyweight who has control of the media. Speech is possible from the right hemisphere, but it is usually very limited. We have seen that thought probably originates in the right hemisphere, but the left hemisphere has most syntax and most of the lexicon, which makes it very much the controller of the ‘word’ in general. Coupled with its preference for classification, analysis and sequential thinking, this makes it very powerful in constructing an argument. By contrast it is hard for the right hemisphere to be heard at all: what it knows is too complex, hasn’t the advantage of having been carved up into pieces that can be neatly strung together, and it hasn’t got a voice anyway.

A beautiful, poetic, philosophical piece that is, as usual, rather dense:

The left hemisphere, with its rational system-building, makes possible the will to action; it believes it is the one that makes things happen, even makes things live. But nothing in us, actively or positively, make things live – all we can do is permit, or not permit, life, which already exists. It may still seem difficult to understand how a set of relations that are predicated, as I would agree with Scheler (and for that matter with Heidegger) that they are, on negation – the power to say ‘no’ or not say ‘no’ – can prove to have life and be creative. It seems obvious to the left hemisphere, which is all that we have to ‘think’ (reason) with, and which remains ignorant of what the right hemisphere knows, that creation must be the result of something positive it does. It makes things, as it makes things happen, and it thinks it gives life to them. In this it is like a cat pushing a dead mouse about the floor in order to see it move. But we do not have the power to make things live: like the cat, we can only either permit life, or not permit it.

This idea is not as strange, however – or as unusual in the history of philosophy – as it may seem. The act of creation may be one of invention, not in the modern sense of the word, but in its older sense: one of discovery, of finding something that was there, but required liberation into being. The word invention used to mean discovery (Latin invenire, to find), and it is only since the seventeenth century that the word has come to take on the grandiose sense of something we make, rather than something we uncover. Un-covering, or ‘dis-covering’, has built into the very word the act of negation, of saying ‘no’ to something that conceals. It was Spinoza who first made the point that omnis determinatio est negatio – ‘all determination [in the sense of the bringing into sharper focus of anything] is negation’. And Hegel, who is here, as so often, in the forefront of modern philosophy, emphasised the creative importance of negation. But the idea is familiar to mainstream science. The Popperian criteria for truth incorporate the notion that we can never prove something to be true; all we can do is prove that the alternatives are untrue.


The danger and self-delusion of the left hemisphere:

Although the left hemisphere does not see and cannot understand what the right hemisphere understands, it is expert at pretending that it does, at finding quite plausible, but bogus, explanations for the evidence that does not fit its version of events. It will be remembered from the experiments of Deglin and Kinsbourne that the left hemisphere would rather believe authority, ‘what it says on this piece of paper’, than the evidence of its own senses. And remember how it is willing to deny a paralysed limb, even when it is confronted with indisputable evidence?

Ramachandran puts the problem with his customary vividness:

In the most extreme cases, a patient will not only deny that the arm (or leg) is paralysed, but assert that the arm lying in the bed next to him, his own paralysed arm, doesn’t belong to him! There’s an unbridled willingness to accept absurd ideas. But when the damage is to the left hemisphere (and the sufferer is therefore depending on the right hemisphere), with paralysis on the body’s right side, they almost never experience denial. Why not? They are as disabled and frustrated as people with right hemisphere damage, and presumably there is as much ‘need’ for psychological defence, but in fact they are not only aware of the paralysis, but constantly talk about it …It is the vehemence of the denial – not a mere indifference to paralysis – that cries out for an explanation.66

The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility. If the defect might reflect on the self, it does not like to accept it. But if something or someone else can be made to take responsibility – if it is a ‘victim’ of someone else’s wrongdoing, in other words – it is prepared to do so. Ramachandran carried out an experiment in which a patient with denial of a left arm paralysis received an injection of harmless salt water that she was told would ‘paralyse’ her (in reality already paralysed) left arm. Once her left hemisphere had someone else to blame for it, it was prepared to accept the existence of the paralysis.68

Ramachandran again: ‘The left hemisphere is a conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies, whereas the right hemisphere is the opposite: highly sensitive to perturbation.’69 Denial, a tendency to conformism, a willingness to disregard the evidence, a habit of ducking responsibility, a blindness to mere experience in the face of the overwhelming evidence of theory: these might sound ominously familiar to observers of contemporary Western life.


Basic contention that there is a switch in culture between “left” and “right” brain ways of being in the world.

Does not claim this necessarily occur at the actual level of evolution in brain structure but via epigenetics etc …


But [in the East] there is nothing like the extraordinary divarication of culture that seems to have characterised the history of the West – no equivalent of the Enlightenment, with its insistence on just one, rectilinear, way of conceiving the world, and (because there was no need for it) no Romanticism that aimed to redress it. As Max Weber demonstrated in his histories of Chinese and Indian culture, and of Judaism, it was only in the West that unchecked, acquisitive rationalism in science, capitalism and bureaucracy took hold.3


A #cri-de-couer from McGilchrist

Today all the available sources of intuitive life – cultural tradition, the natural world, the body, religion and art – have been so conceptualised, devitalised and ‘deconstructed’ (ironised) by the world of words, mechanistic systems and theories constituted by the left hemisphere that their power to help us see beyond the hermetic world that it has set up has been largely drained from them. I have referred to the fact that a number of influential figures in the history of ideas, among them Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger, have noted a gradual encroachment over time of rationality on the natural territory of intuition or instinct.

Chapter VIII: – The Ancient World

The direction of Writing

“Writing is basically a technology,” wrote the great French historian, Fernand Braudel,

a way of committing things to memory and communicating them, enabling people to send orders and to carry out administration at a distance. Empires and organised societies extending over space are the children of writing, which appeared everywhere at the same time as these political units, and by a similar process … [Writing] became established as a means of controlling the society … In Sumer, most of the archaic tablets are simply inventories and accounts, lists of food rations distributed, with a note of the recipients. Linear B, the Mycenae-Cretan script which was finally deciphered in 1953, is equally disappointing, since it refers to similar subject matter: so far it has revealed hardly anything but palace accounts. But it was at this basic level that writing first became fixed and showed what it could do, having been invented by zealous servants of state or prince. Other functions and applications would come in due course. Numbers appear in the earliest written languages.101


Capitalism and consumerism, ways of conceiving human relationships based on little more than utility, greed, and competition, came to supplant those based on felt connection and cultural continuity.


There is a close relationship between the mentality that results in bureaucratic organisation and the mentality of capitalism. Socialism and capitalism are both essentially materialist, just different ways of approaching the lifeless world of matter and deciding how to share the spoils.

This point, and IM’s general comment on current economic order is similar to the points i make re two arms of transformation and the primacy of being: both capitalism and socialism are situated in the material (the left hemisphere if you like). True transformation must always come in the realm of being, of the psyche.

The broader quote (worth adding I think):

In Eric Fromm’s study On Disobedience, he describes modern man as homo consumens: concerned with things more than people, property more than life, capital more than work. He sees this man as obsessed with the structures of things, and calls him ‘organisation man’, flourishing, if that is the right word, as much under the bureaucracy of communism as under capitalism. There is a close relationship between the mentality that results in bureaucratic organisation and the mentality of capitalism. Socialism and capitalism are both essentially materialist, just different ways of approaching the lifeless world of matter and deciding how to share the spoils. To that extent one might say that their antipathy represents little more than a farmyard scrap between two dogs over a bone.


Interesting data on rise of schizophrenia with the industrial revolution and other matters:

What is beyond reasonable doubt, however, since it has been established by repeated research over at least half a century, is that schizophrenia increased pari passu with industrialisation; that the form in which schizophrenia exists is more severe and has a clearly worse outcome in Western countries; and that, as recent research confirms, prevalence by country increases in proportion to the degree that the country is ‘developed’, which in practice means Westernised.59

  1. Saha, Chant, Welham et al., 2005. Saha, S., Chant, D., Welham, J. et al., ‘A systematic review of the prevalence of schizophrenia’, PLoS Medicine, 2 2005, 2(5), p. e141

Fascinating data point:

After controlling for all confounding factors, mental health is better in rural than non-rural populations and deteriorates in tandem with population density.60

  1. Weich, Twigg & Lewis, 2006. Weich, S., Twigg, L. & Lewis, G., ‘Rural/non-rural differences in rates of common mental disorders in Britain: prospective multilevel cohort study’, British Journal of Psychiatry, 2006, 188(1), pp. 51–7

The entire section is worth quoting:

After controlling for all confounding factors, mental health is better in rural than non-rural populations and deteriorates in tandem with population density.60 City dwelling is associated with higher rates of depression, certainly, but even more with schizophrenia, in the genesis, or expression, of which it is the most potent environmental factor.61 The relative risk of developing schizophrenia in an urban rather than a rural setting is nearly double, and the evidence suggests that it is more likely that the urban environment causes psychosis than that high-risk individuals migrate to urban areas.62 The concept of ‘social defeat’ has been developed as an explanation of the high levels of schizophrenia in immigrant populations, particularly those from the West Indies into Britain.63 It is acknowledged that urban environments are more competitive. This is in part a reflection of capitalist culture, which is always most strongly expressed in cities for a host of obvious reasons. It is also because the kind of social order that would have valued an individual for anything other than their earning power has been lost. It’s a culture, if that is still the right word for it, of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.

Interesting evidence that anorexia is associated with right hemisphere deficits and left hemisphere dominance.


Being begets culture begets being:

Thus a culture with prominent ‘schizoid’ characteristics attracts to positions of influence individuals who will help it ever further down the same path. And the increasing domination of life by both technology and bureaucracy helps to erode the more integrative modes of attention to people and things which might help us to resist the advances of technology and bureaucracy, much as they erode the social and cultural structures that would have facilitated other ways of being, so that in this way they aid their own replication.


Beauty, music and universals

Most theories of beauty from Plato to Nietzsche and beyond share the same concept of beauty: an organic whole which shows harmony between the parts. Western and Eastern concepts of beauty, despite their having evolved largely independently, are remarkably consonant.110 This will hardly surprise any Westerner familiar with Oriental art in all, or any, of its forms. Despite individual exceptions there is general agreement across cultures. This is why translations of poetry and fiction sell widely in many languages, why exhibitions of Japanese art, concerts of Indian, Indonesian or Japanese music, and even performances of oriental drama in the West are so successful; and why Western art galleries are popular attractions for large numbers of visitors from the East, and performances of Shakespeare, and concerts of Western music or ballet, are in demand in China and Japan, where some of the best performers of classical European music now originate. Even the completely untutored, indigenous populations of places such as Papua New Guinea, who have had no exposure to classical Western music, appreciate and understand intuitively the emotional import of the music of Mozart. None of this would be possible without the existence of non-socially constructed values that enable the apprehension of beauty and the understanding of its expression through art. There is a developing acceptance by psychology and the social sciences that human universals clearly do exist.111 [111 cites Brown, D. E., Human Universals, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1991]


  • World we are getting (in not good sense) looks like what we would have if left hemisphere dominated

Summary: material wealth (left-hemisphere) makes relatively little difference to well-being beyond a certain minimum but social relationships, connectedness etc (right hemisphere) are really important and remain important.

I am aware that, if one adopts the left hemisphere’s view, what I am about to say will be difficult to accept, but the fact remains that increases in material well-being have little or nothing to do with human happiness. Obviously poverty is an ill, and everyone needs their basic material needs to be met, and, for most of us, a little more than that. But, if observation and experience of life are not enough to convince us that, beyond that, there is little, if any, correlation between material well-being and happiness, objective data demonstrate it. Over the last twenty-five years, levels of satisfaction with life have actually declined in the US, a period during which there has been an enormous increase in prosperity; and there may even have been a significant inverse relationship between economic growth and happiness there.6 Since those blessed with employment spend much of their life at work, the quality of that experience matters. According to Putnam, in 1955 in the US, 44 per cent of all workers enjoyed their working hours more than anything else they did; by 1999 only 16 per cent did. Of course that might be because we are now enjoying ourselves more outside of work, but that clearly isn’t the case, since overall levels of satisfaction have declined. In Britain the story is the same. According to Gallup poll data, throughout the 1950s the British were happier than they are today, despite now being three times richer in real terms. In 1957, 52 per cent of the population considered themselves ‘very happy’, compared with 36 per cent today. Most countries studied show either a decrease or at least no change in well-being despite an increase in prosperity; and no relationship can be found between happiness and economic growth.7 The main determinants of happiness, as one might have expected, are not economic in nature. As two researchers in the area remark, with some restraint, given the huge increases in material prosperity over the last half century for which robust data exist, ‘the intriguing lack of an upward trend in happiness data deserves to be confronted by economists.’8

Excellent point following this:

More recent evidence in Europe displays the same effect. The so-called Euro-Barometer surveys of satisfaction with life, covering fifteen European countries during the decade to 2000, shows four clusters, in each of which the consensus trend is horizontal or slightly negative.10 The hedonic treadmill makes sure of that: modern consumers everywhere are in a ‘permanent state of unfulfilled desire’.11 As usual Sam Johnson got there about a couple of centuries before the research: ‘Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment.’12

The issue is that material stuff does not matter and that relationships do (and quotes from Putnam):

So what does make a difference to happiness? ‘The single most common finding from a half century’s research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world’, writes Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, ‘is that happiness is best predicted by’ – let’s guess: if not wealth, then health? No, not that either, but – ‘the breadth and depth of one’s social connections’.15

Even now, rates of depression do differ markedly between cultures, probably by as much as 12-fold, and such differences in rates of depression appear to be linked to the degree of stability and interconnectedness within a culture.16 Even being uprooted from your own culture, provided you take with you the way of thinking and being that characterises the more integrated social culture from which you come, is not as disruptive to happiness and well-being as becoming part of a relatively fragmented culture. For example, rates of psychological disturbance in Mexican immigrants to the USA start at a low level, but increase in proportion to the time spent in the US. The lifetime prevalence of any mental disorder in one large study was 18 per cent for Mexican immigrants with less than thirteen years in the US, 32 per cent for those with more than thirteen years, but only for those born in the US did it approximate, at 49 per cent, the national rate for the whole US.17

fn 16 is Weissman, M. M., Bland, R. C., Canino, G. J. et al., ‘Cross-national epidemiology of major depression and bipolar disorder’, Journal of the American Medical Association, 1996, 276(4), pp. 293–9

Over recent years, urbanisation, globalisation and the destruction of local cultures has led to a rise in the prevalence of mental illness in the developing world.18 A massive study involving data regarding nearly 40,000 people across North America, Western Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific Rim found that depression is being experienced more often, and at younger ages, with more severe and more frequent episodes, in younger birth cohorts generation by generation, and in the USA had doubled since the Second World War.19

In a demonstration of the integrity of mind and body, it is not just mental health, but physical health that suffers when we are not socially integrated. ‘Social connectedness’ predicts lower rates of colds, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, depression, and premature death of all sorts.20 In fact the positive effects of social integration rival the detrimental effects of smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and physical inactivity.21 According to Putnam, ‘statistically speaking, the evidence for the health consequences of social connectedness is as strong today as was the evidence for health consequences of smoking at the time of the first surgeon general’s report on smoking.’22 The protective effect of community is demonstrated by the interesting case of Roseto, a close-knit community of Italian immigrants in Pennsylvania, with largely traditional cultural ties – both the formal ones of churches and clubs, and the informal ones that form the fabric of traditional Italian daily life. This community attracted medical attention in the 1940s because of a mysterious anomaly: here was a rate of heart attack less than half the national average, despite having higher than average risk factors. After the relationship with social connectedness was discovered, it was predicted that once the mobile younger generation moved away and ‘began to reject the tight-knit Italian folkways, the heart attack rate would begin to rise’. By the 1980s this prediction had come true.23

Roseto study is: Egolf, B., Lasker, J., Wolf, S. et al., ‘The Roseto effect: a fifty-year comparison of mortality rates’, American Journal of Epidemiology, 1992, 125(6), pp. 1089–92


Three areas it is threatened by and three areas of resistance:

  • The body – it is not a mechanism but something experienced, not a means but something in itself
  • The spirit – the dissolution of religion and awe
  • Art – the joke that is postmodern art


The non-art of modern art

Here I must speak for myself, since these matters are nothing if not personal. When I think of such works of art, and compare Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, or even, I am afraid, so much other post-modern art, just as when I think of Bach and compare him with Stockhausen, I feel we have lost not just the plot, but our sense of the absurd.31 We stand or sit there solemnly contemplating the genius of the artwork, like the passive, well-behaved bourgeois that we are, when we should be calling someone’s bluff. My bet is that our age will be viewed in retrospect with amusement, as an age remarkable not only for its cynicism, but for its gullibility. The two conditions are not as far apart as they may seem.

Beauty and the good are real and clear (the left hemisphere’s need for precise definitions is exactly the issue)

It’s odd what’s happened to beauty. Beauty is not just whatever we agree to call it, nor does it go away if we ignore it. We can’t remake our values at will. There may of course be shifts in art theory, but that is distinct from beauty itself, and we cannot rid ourselves of the value of beauty by a decision in theory. In this, beauty is like other transcendental ideals, such as goodness. Societies may dispute what is to be considered good, but they cannot do away with the concept. What is more the concept is remarkably stable over time. Exactly what is to be considered good may shift around the edges, but the core remains unchanged. Similarly, exactly what is to be called beautiful may vary a little over time, but the core concepts of beauty remain, which is why we have no difficulty in appreciating the beauty of mediaeval or ancient art despite the passage of centuries. Art theory can pronounce the death of beauty, but in doing so it revives memories of King Canute.


Linear progression versus circular

Be that as it may, the left hemisphere loves straight lines, not curves or circles. It can approximate a curve, however closely, only by the expedient of laying ever more tangents. No straight lines are to be found in the natural world. Everything that really exists follows a series of curved shapes to which the logical products of the human mind can only ever approach tangentially – flow, once again, reduced to a series of points. Leonard Shlain has pointed out that the only apparently straight line in the natural world is that of the horizon; but of course that too turns out to be a section of a curve.38 Even space, it turns out, is curved. Rectilinearity, as Ruskin had similarly demonstrated of clarity, is illusory, and can only be approximated, like clarity, by narrowing the breadth, and limiting the depth, of the perceptual field. Straight lines are prevalent wherever the left hemisphere predominates, in the late Roman Empire (whose towns and roads are laid out like grids), in Classicism (by contrast with the Baroque, which had everywhere celebrated the curve), in the Industrial Revolution (the Victorian emphasis on ornament and Gothicism being an ultimately futile nostalgic pretence occasioned by the functional brutality and invariance of the rectilinear productions of machines) and in the grid-like environment of the modern city, where that pretence has been dropped.

By contrast the shape that is suggested by the processing of the right hemisphere is that of the circle, and its movement is characteristically ‘in the round’, the phrase we use to describe something that is seen as a whole, and in depth. Circular motion accommodates, as rectilinearity does not, the coming together of opposites. Cognition in the right hemisphere is not a process of something coming into being through adding piece to piece in a sequence, but of something that is out of focus coming into focus, as a whole. Everything is understood within its penumbra of significances, in its context – all that encircles it. There are strong affinities between the idea of wholeness and roundedness. The movement of the right hemisphere is not the unidirectional, instrumental gesture of grasp, but the musical, whole-bodied, socially generative, movement of dance, which is never in a straight line towards something, but always ultimately returns to its origins.

The glint in the maiden’s eye [or reasons for hope]

Similarly in the fruitfulness of opposition, of dialectical growth – what Nietzsche, like Heraclitus, simply calls war – there is hope, since the worse it gets, the better it gets. He quotes, as having long been his motto, Increscunt animi, virescit volnere virtus: ‘The spirit grows, [and] strength is restored, by wounding.’48 And the obvious inauthenticity of the left-hemisphere world we have come to inhabit may in itself lead us to seek to change it. In the past that would appear to have been the most important factor, and I hope I may be wrong in seeing the present situation as different. In any case, understanding the nature of the problem has to be the first step towards change. Change, however, would require a willingness to accept being seen as naïve for not getting caught up in the dialectic of the clever ironies, on the one hand, or of scientific materialism, on the other.

Now, says Hegel, that ‘the oracles … no longer speak to men’, and ‘the statues have become stone corpses’ (there is much in that phrase alone), the remnants of the past, the glories of its art, history and culture, are like ‘beautiful fruit broken off a tree; a kindly fate has passed those works on to us, much as a girl might offer us such fruit’.49 The tree, and the earth in which it grew, and the climate in which the fruit ripened, are no longer available to us except as a ‘veiled remembrance’, something we represent to ourselves by picturing it. Yet, Hegel says, the knowingness with which we now have to recapture this, is like the ‘glint of self-awareness’ in the eye of the beautiful maiden who offers us the fruit; it is the same Nature that produced those fruit, but ‘at a higher level’, and it can add as well as take away.

The contrast is like that between the country folk at the fair which Wordsworth sees from Helvellyn, and Wordsworth’s poem on the subject, which, though it lacks an unrecapturable quality of the ‘self unseeing’ that is still available to its subject, is itself a great work at a higher level of self-awareness, which the country folk could not achieve. Of what the ancients were happily unconscious, we are necessarily conscious, Hegel seems to say, but we see more: perhaps as the innocence of the adult, where it is achieved, is greater than the innocence of a child, though bought at the cost of much painful awareness.

But such innocence is rare. Age has a chance of bringing it only if we are very lucky or very disciplined. Wordsworth’s achievement, like that of Blake and Keats, is that he retains a degree of innocence despite his experience, an innocence which all three evidence in what one might call their vulnerability. Through it alone they are enabled to achieve an inspired quality which could be mistaken by the foolish, at times, for foolishness. The price of their achievement is that they must make themselves open, even to ridicule, rather than shelter behind a self-protective carapace of ironic knowingness and cynicism.50

Excessive self-consciousness, like the mental world of schizophrenia, is a prison: its inbuilt reflexivity – the hall of mirrors – sends the mind ever back into itself. Breaking out of the prison presents a problem, since self-consciousness cannot be curbed by a conscious act of will, any more than we can succeed in trying not to think of little green apples. The apple of knowledge, once eaten, cannot become once more ‘unbitten in the palm’. Nonetheless conscious reflection, the root of the problem, may itself provide the antidote to its own effects. Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty, all of them critics of reflection, embodied in their writing a reflective attempt to surmount reflection. Hölderlin’s lines once again come to mind: ‘Where there is danger, that which will save us also grows’ (see p. 232).

This is because philosophy does not answer our questions but shakes our belief that there are answers to be had; and in doing so it forces us to look beyond its own system to another way of understanding. One of the reasons reading Heidegger is at the same time so riveting and such a painful experience is that he never ceases to struggle to transcend the Cartesian divisions which analytic language entails, in order to demonstrate that there is a path, a way through the forest, the travelling of which is in itself the goal of human thinking. Though we can emerge into a ‘clearing’, we cannot hope to reach the clear light of the Empyrean, which as Hölderlin’s devastating poem Hyperions Schicksalslied makes plain, is reserved only for the gods. Perhaps inevitably Heidegger’s last writings are in the form of poems. Wittgenstein also saw the true process of philosophy as a way of transcending or healing the effects of philosophy in the philosophical mind: philosophy is itself a disease, as Karl Kraus said of psychoanalysis, for which it purports to be the cure.51 Merleau-Ponty, more explicitly than either, held out the hope that we could learn to see things again by a process of surréflexion, hyper-reflection, which would help to redress the distorting effects of consciousness by making us conscious of them. This idea had already occurred to the Romantics. At the end of his famous essay ‘On the Puppet Theatre’, Kleist offers the possibility that the crippling effects of self-consciousness may be transcended through a form of still further heightened consciousness, by which we might regain a form of innocence.

‘Grace appears purest in that human form which has either no consciousness or an infinite one, that is, in a puppet or in a god.’

‘Therefore’, I said, somewhat bewildered, ‘we would have to eat again from the Tree of Knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?’

‘Quite right’, he answered. ‘And that’s the last chapter in the history of the world.

With that his essay closes. In this last phrase Kleist may be warning us, as Hölderlin does, that what we crave can be had only in another world, where there are gods. But his essay also confirms that we can move only onward, not backward, and that by doing so we might transcend our situation and in this way return to something lost. Perhaps the very emptiness of self-reflection, what Vico called ‘the barbarism of reflection’, may push us towards the necessary leap of faith that alone will allow us to escape. After all, even the emptying out of consciousness achieved by Zen is not a random gift but achieved by years of consciously embraced self-discipline.

What we might learn from Oriental culture

These ideas would be more intuitively understandable within an Oriental culture. Another reason for hope is that we are probably more open to the remaining cultures of the world that have not yet been completely submerged by the West, though for the same reasons we are increasingly prone to influence them to become more like our own. The pattern of psychological differences between Oriental people and Westerners suggests the possibility of a different relationship between the hemispheres. It is striking, for example, that the Japanese language does not have an established method for composing abstract nouns, and has no definite or indefinite articles, considered to be a crucial step in the emergence of abstract nouns in Greek.54 The Japanese have nothing that corresponds to the Platonic Idea, and in fact no abstractions in general: they have never developed the dichotomy between the phenomenological world and the world of ideas.55 Nakamura writes:

The Japanese are willing to accept the phenomenal world as Absolute because of their disposition to lay a greater emphasis upon intuitive sensible concrete events, rather than upon universals. This way of thinking with emphasis upon the fluid, arresting character of observed events regards the phenomenal world itself as Absolute and rejects the recognition of anything existing over [and above] the phenomenal world.56

The sharp dichotomy in our culture between the ways of being of the two hemispheres, which began in Ancient Greece, does not appear to exist, or, at any rate, to exist in the same way, in Oriental culture: their experience of the world is still effectively grounded in that of the right hemisphere.

The Japanese also preserve a healthy scepticism about language, and this goes hand in hand with the rejection of a reality that must, or ever could, be arrived at purely by reason. In Zen Buddhism, according to Soiku Shigematsu, the abbot of Shogenji temple, ‘a word is a finger that points at the moon. The goal of Zen pupils is the moon itself, not the pointing finger. Zen masters, therefore, will never stop cursing words and letters.’57 [cites Shigematsu, S., Zen Forest, Weatherhill, New York, 1981]

A reverent attitude toward shizen [nature], now absent in the West, is characteristic even of the Japanese scientific education system. The term shizen implies that nature is the root of life in a spiritual or religious sense.62 A famous Japanese anthropologist Iwata argues that among the Japanese as well as most southeast Asian people, whether the people are formally Buddhists or Christians, there exists an intuition of animism. Everything surrounding human life, including mountains, hills, rivers, plants, trees, animals, fish and insects, has its own spirit (kami), and these spirits communicate with one another as well as with those who live there. Apparently most Japanese are familiar with such spirits, and experience them: natural things cannot, therefore, be seen by them merely as objects, as in Western science.63

  • Section on how western thought prefers immutability and certainty whilst oriental thought is happy with fleetingness, impermanence and change.

Evidence that Oriental Thinking is Different at the Neuro-Psycho Level

If it were true, as one might surmise, that cerebral organisation in Oriental peoples is different from that in Westerners, without the same polarisation of the hemispheres, it might suggest another way in which we could consciously set about influencing the hemispheric balance. What scientific evidence could there be of that?

Hardly surprisingly there is in fact much evidence that East Asians and Westerners perceive the world and think about it in very different ways. In general, East Asians have a more holistic approach. For example, if asked to group objects, East Asians make comparatively little use of categories.66 They are more likely to attend to the broad perceptual and conceptual field, noticing relationships and changes, and grouping objects according to family resemblances, based on an appreciation of the whole, rather than on membership of a category. Westerners are significantly more likely to give one-dimensional, rule-based responses, based on individual components of the stimuli.67 East Asians also rely less on formal logic, instead focussing on relations among objects and the context in which they interact. They use more intuitive modes compared with Americans of European origin.68 They see events as arising from an entire context, and tend to think in a much less linear, and more global way, about causation. By contrast Westerners tend to focus exclusively on the object as cause, and are therefore often mistaken. Westerners are more analytic, and pay attention primarily to isolated objects, and the categories to which they belong. They tend to use rules, including formal logic, to understand their behaviour.69 These effects remain when language is controlled for.70

East Asians use a more ‘dialectical’ mode of reasoning: they are more willing to accept, to entertain, or even seek out contradictory perspectives on the same issue. They see the world in which they live as complex, containing inherently conflicting elements. Where Chinese students try to retain elements of opposing perspectives by seeking to synthesise them, American students try to determine which is correct so that they can reject the other. Presented with evidence for two opposing positions, Easterners are more likely to reach a compromise, whereas the fact of opposition tends to make Westerners adhere to one position more strongly. Westerners adopt a more ‘either/or’ approach. In one experiment, Chinese volunteers particularly liked proverbs, whether Chinese or American, that presented an apparent contradiction, such as the Chinese saying ‘too humble is half proud’. US participants preferred proverbs without contradictions, such as ‘half a loaf is better than no bread’.71

Westerners are inclined to attend to some focal object, analyzing its attributes and categorizing it in an effort to find out what rules govern its behaviour. Their attention is drawn by the constant features of entities in isolation. East Asians attend to the whole context, including background and global aspects of a scene, whereas American students focus on a few discrete objects salient in the foreground. In one study, Japanese volunteers who saw a cartoon of underwater life later remembered it as an integrated scene, such as a pond with a large school of fish and a clump of seaweed, where their US counterparts mostly recalled a few fish that they had seen in the foreground.72

It has often been noted that these cognitive differences are reflected in the differences between Western and Oriental society. Similarly with art: Oriental art emphasises the field, and tends correspondingly to de-emphasize individual objects, including people, by comparison with Western art.73 Further, a study of photographic scenes from small, medium, and large cities in Japan and the United States demonstrated, by both subjective and objective measures, that Japanese scenes were more ambiguous and contained more elements than American scenes. In a further twist, both Japanese and American participants primed with Japanese scenes attended more to contextual information than did those primed with American scenes.74 This last finding, in particular, is fascinating, and tends to confirm my view that the brain creates its own projections in the outer world, which in turn help to influence the workings of the brain in a mutually reinforcing, and self-perpetuating, way. This would suggest that the nature of the modern Western urban environment may be exaggerating the tendencies that the left hemisphere has projected there, as well as suggesting one reason why the natural environment is felt to have such a healing influence.

Eastern cultures, and in particular the Japanese, have been characterised as ‘interdependent’; in other words, individuals are less seen in isolation than they are in the West, instead forming part of an interconnected social web. For them, the sense of the self (as we saw for the right hemisphere) develops through understanding its influence on others. Self-improvement in such cultures has far less to do with getting what one wants, and far more to do with confronting one’s own shortcomings, in the interests of harmony, at home, at work, and amongst friends.75 Westerners perform better on tasks with independent demands than on tasks with interdependent demands.76 East Asians make stronger efforts to justify their choices if they have been made on behalf of a friend, Westerners if made for themselves.77

The Japanese word for self, jibun, implies a share of something which is both separate and not separate, individual and yet still shared. It is a common Western misconception that Japanese culture does not value the individual.78 On the contrary, originality, self-direction, and autonomy are all highly prized.79 In fact, if anything the Japanese have a more highly developed sense of private self-consciousness than their American counterparts, with at least as much concern for hidden thoughts, feelings, and motives.80 But they are also more sensitive to their obligation to belong, rather than seeking only to feel good because of unique qualities that make one stand apart from others.

Emphasis on high self-esteem as a sign of mental health is a relatively recent, Western phenomenon, and is far from being an unmixed good. Having low self-esteem, certainly in the West, is an obvious cause of anxiety and depression; but high self-esteem is positively correlated with a tendency to be unrealistic, to take offence too easily, and to become violent and demanding if one’s needs are not met.81 Whereas in America students seek positive self-regard, the Japanese are more self-critical, an attitude which they sense to have a natural wisdom.82 The need for positive self-regard, as it is currently conceptualized, is not a universal, but rooted in significant aspects of North American culture.83 People in the West characteristically over-estimate their abilities, exaggerate their capacity to control essentially uncontrollable events, and hold over-optimistic views of the future. In fact, so much does our happiness depend on such illusions, that, in the West, lacking them is even correlated with psychiatric problems.84


In the opening pages of this book, I wrote that I believed it to be profoundly true that the inner structure of our intellect reflects the structure of the universe. By ‘profoundly’ I meant not just true by definition, as would be the case for those who believe that the universe is in any case a creation of our brains. I think it goes further than that. I believe our brains not only dictate the shape of the experience we have of the world, but are likely themselves to reflect, in their structure and functioning, the nature of the universe in which they have come about.

What the neuropsychological data I have considered in this book exhibit are some underlying tendencies – tendencies that can, however, be ultimately highly revealing. Overall a picture develops from a mass of small details, not necessarily by summing them all, left-hemisphere fashion, but perhaps by seeing the pattern, as the Dalmatian emerges from the blur of splashes and dots, right-hemisphere fashion.101 If I am wrong, the picture I discern in the dots and splashes will simply not be recognised by others; if there is any truth in it, it may awaken thoughts. As Karl Popper put it, ‘bold ideas, unjustified anticipations and speculative thought, are our only means for interpreting nature: our only organon, our only instrument for grasping her.’102 Or, perhaps, reaching out a hand to her.

I would also like to put in a word for uncertainty. In the field of religion there are dogmatists of no-faith as there are of faith, and both seem to me closer to one another than those who try to keep the door open to the possibility of something beyond the customary ways in which we think, but which we would have to find, painstakingly, for ourselves. Similarly as regards science, there are those who are certain, God knows how, of what it is that patient attention to the world reveals, and those who really do not care, because their minds are already made up that science cannot tell them anything profound. Both seem to me profoundly mistaken. Though we cannot be certain what it is our knowledge reveals, this is in fact a much more fruitful position – in fact the only one that permits the possibility of belief. And what has limited the power of both art and science in our time has been the absence of belief in anything except the most diminished version of the world and our selves. Certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong. The difference between scientific materialists and the rest is only this: the intuition of the one is that mechanistic application of reason will reveal everything about the world we inhabit, where the intuition of the others leads them to be less sure. Virtually every great physicist of the last century – Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Heisenberg, Bohm, amongst many others – has made the same point. A leap of faith is involved, for scientists as much as anyone. According to Max Planck, ‘Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with.’ And he continued: ‘Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.’103

In a famous passage Lessing wrote:

The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to what lies behind the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent, vain – If God held enclosed in his right hand all truth, and in his left hand the ever-living striving for truth, although with the qualification that I must for ever err, and said to me ‘choose’, I should humbly choose the left hand and say ‘Father, give! pure truth is for thee alone.’104

Key point that is what is offered may be a metaphor (he is not attached to lateralisation)

If it could eventually be shown definitively that the two major ways, not just of thinking, but of being in the world, are not related to the two cerebral hemispheres, I would be surprised, but not unhappy. Ultimately what I have tried to point to is that the apparently separate ‘functions’ in each hemisphere fit together intelligently to form in each case a single coherent entity; that there are, not just currents here and there in the history of ideas, but consistent ways of being that persist across the history of the Western world, that are fundamentally opposed, though complementary, in what they reveal to us; and that the hemispheres of the brain can be seen as, at the very least, a metaphor for these.

In summation …

What all these point to is the fundamentally divided nature of mental experience. When one puts that together with the fact that the brain is divided into two relatively independent chunks which just happen broadly to mirror the very dichotomies that are being pointed to – alienation versus engagement, abstraction versus incarnation, the categorical versus the unique, the general versus the particular, the part versus the whole, and so on – it seems like a metaphor that might have some literal truth. But if it turns out to be ‘just’ a metaphor, I will be content. I have a high regard for metaphor. It is how we come to understand the world.

Connection to Buddhism

There are strong and deep connections between TMAHE and much of Buddhist thinking. However, it is noteworthy that McGilchrist himself seems largely ignorant of these connections i.e. they are rarely if ever mentioned and spelled out which would be surprising if he was aware of them given his general thoroughness. A few exceptions which in their passing nature confirm the overall supposition:

Perhaps the very emptiness of self-reflection, what Vico called ‘the barbarism of reflection’, may push us towards the necessary leap of faith that alone will allow us to escape. After all, even the emptying out of consciousness achieved by Zen is not a random gift but achieved by years of consciously embraced self-discipline.

Or … [note the assignment of a famous saying of Buddha with the comments of a Japanese temple abbot]:

The Japanese also preserve a healthy scepticism about language, and this goes hand in hand with the rejection of a reality that must, or ever could, be arrived at purely by reason. In Zen Buddhism, according to Soiku Shigematsu, the abbot of Shogenji temple, ‘a word is a finger that points at the moon. The goal of Zen pupils is the moon itself, not the pointing finger. Zen masters, therefore, will never stop cursing words and letters.’

Examples of the connection:

  • Interest in phenomenology. Phenomenological thinking has much in common with Buddhist thought, esp as presented by IM.
  • Discussion of interdependency of the hemispheres, the specifics and the whole, context and causation has direct analogy in much of Buddhist thought. Specific example (from the conclusion):

If one imagines Pavlov’s dog, in a different experiment, having repeated experience of the bell being rung after it has started eating, rather than just before it gets food, one would have to say that, when the dog hears the bell in the absence of food, it experiences an association (a mini-context) in which these two events tend to co-occur. It would have as much reason to start to salivate when it heard the bell, but in doing so it would appear less mechanical, less as though its behaviour were caused by the bell. The dog is reduced to a mechanism by the temporal sequencing, an essential part of the concept of causation, and by the stripping away of the context to focus on a sequence. Imagine the smell of alcohol to an alcoholic. Does the smell cause the alcoholic to take a drink – or set up a set of associations, a surrounding context, in which wanting, and having, a drink are part? The dog, too, is appreciating associations or contexts (a right-hemisphere function), not just acting like a left-hemisphere machine: we know, for example, that the sound of its master’s voice evokes to a dog an image of its master’s face, not because the voice ‘causes’ the face but because they are part of a whole experience.37 Perhaps all cause and effect might be thought of in this way. A bat striking a ball necessitates the ball flying off suddenly at great speed in a certain direction. But equally the ball flying off suddenly at great speed in a certain direction necessitates the bat striking it in a certain way. One could say that the bat and the ball have a sort of stickiness, a tendency for their movements to cohere in a certain kind of context.

That last (bolded) sentence especially is very similar to Buddhist ideas around dependent co-arising.

  • Right hemisphere “wholeness”
  • Consciousness, experience etc being beyond language – “my teaching is a finger pointing at the moon”
  • Inbetweeness. Buddhist sense of non-duality, of self and non-self etc.
  • Being taken out of yourself, going beyond, being taken up “aufgehoben”. Connects to Buddhist sense of transcendence of self.
  • Preference for community, for the greater whole over the individual and the narrower view. Connects with interbeing, Sangha, lack of separateness of self (non-existence of this self).

Whereas the melancholy Jaques in As You Like It accentuates the tragedy of the individual life, working its inevitable way through the seven ages of man to be ultimately ‘sans everything’, the other characters teasingly aim to help him see beyond this to the bigger picture that suggests that the part, whose trajectory is linear, is taken up into the whole, whose path is in the round.

  • Non-duality e.g. form and content, art and reality etc.

Water is distinct from ice, but in the ice cube it is present: not as a fly might be trapped there, but in the very ice. It is the ice. And yet when the ice cube is gone, the water remains. Although we see water in the ice, we do so not because it is there separately, to be seen behind or apart from the cube. Body and soul, metaphor and sense, myth and reality, the work of art and its meaning – in fact the whole phenomenological world, is just what it is and no more, not one thing hiding another; and yet the hard thing is the seemingly easy business, just ‘seeing what it is’ * The world both exists and is created by us. Buddhist dependent coarising. e.g. from the Introduction:

… the world is not independent of our observation of it, attention to it, and interaction with it, …

The kind of attention we pay actually alters the world: we are, literally, partners in creation [of the world]


I emphasize that I think this is an extraordinary book. Its breadth and learning are awe-inspiring, its topic of profound importance, its argument fascinating, thought-provoking and compelling. It defies categorisation: it is a work of reasoned ontology that bridges science and philosophy, history and literary criticism. It talks about the most important questions of how “be in the world”, using reason and language to transcend them, a worthy exemplar of a “finger pointing at the moon”.

These critiques are offered in the spirit of admiration for a masterpiece.

Style and editing

I like McGilchrist’s style but even I found it verbose to the point of turgidity at times. He writes well, the phrases rounded but there is a sense that never will one subclause suffice where two will do too. No statement is left without qualification. One feels a strong editor could have cut a good third of the book simply by pruning verbiage.

An example:

I hope it will not be necessary for me to emphasise, too, that I am in no sense opposed to science, which, like its sister arts, is the offspring of both hemispheres – only to a narrow materialism, which is not intrinsic to science at all.

Aggressively pruned this could have been a third of the length but still retained all the sense of the original (though perhaps not the sonority and half-poetry):

I am not opposed to science only to a narrow materialism.

At the very least it could have read (23 of the length and two sentences):

I am in no sense opposed to science only to a narrow materialism (which is not intrinsic to science at all). After all, science is the offspring of both hemispheres – like its sister arts.

Part II Evidence

There are points where McGilchrist’s epic claims could do with some robuster evidence. This is esp true in the second part of the book with its claims about the impact of the dominance of the hemispheres on culture.

Examples: (Chapter 12)

Devitalisation leads to boredom, and boredom, in turn, to sensationalism. The high stimulus society in which we live is represented through advertising as full of vibrancy and vitality, but, as advertisers know only too well, its condition is one of boredom, and the response to boredom. Since the rise of capitalism in the eighteenth century, when according to Patricia Spacks boredom as such began, an ‘appetite for the new and the different, for fresh experience and novel excitements’ has lain at the heart of successful bourgeois society, with its need above all to be getting and spending money.39 Use of the word ‘boredom’ and reports of the experience have escalated dramatically during the twentieth century.40 It has infested the places of desire and further saps vitality: by 1990, 23 per cent of French men and 31 per cent of French women already reported being bored while making love – ‘l’atrophie du désir.’41

If you check citation for 40 you get: Klapp, 1986, p. 32. See also Healy, 1984.

Looking up Klapp i find: Klapp, O. E., Overload and Boredom: Essays on the Quality of Life in the Information Society, Greenwood, New York, 1986

I can’t access this book (from 1986) but it is a set of sociological essays. i’m dubious that this provides rigorous statistical evidence for the claim in the text. How do we know experience of boredom has escalated? This would be extremely hard to show one way or the other.

And the fact that X% of french men and women report being bored making love in 1990 tells us little about whether this has changed. Maybe it was more in the past, maybe it is more now but that is because people make love more etc.

In general, this paragraph makes a lot of claims that it would be hard to verify. I’ve worked on a farm in the fields. I find it hard to believe that medieval peasants did not get frequently bored performing reptitive manual tasks whether cutting wheat or butter churning. Personally, I’m very sympathetic to Mcgilchrist’s claims here and I do imagine that specialisation in a modern industrial economy has increased as people increasingly do a narrowly defined task repetitively. But more solid evidence for this would be welcome — and interesting.


The mapping of left-hemisphere behaviour onto contemporary life seems rather forced and gives a sense of overreaching.

For me there were several reasons:

  • The sense that the description of a “left-hemisphere” world started to feel more like McGilchrist describing the parts of the modern world he doesn’t like and then attributing that to left-hemisphere dominance (rather than the other way round).
  • The description of the modern world started to feel a bit caricatured. Whilst caricature may be McGilchrist’s intention here, it felt at moment’s too much. Whilst there is may be a rise in rationality over reasonableness there is also a growth in universalism, in tolerance, in openness to alternative ways of thinking (Buddhist mindfulness etc)
  • An over-reliance on left-hemisphere dominance explanations. For example the growth of bureaucratisation has many causes beyond our view of the world e.g. the rowing complexity of the world requires more complex processes of administration (there are, of course, many ways this could have been resolved but increasing bureaucratisation was a natural response).

As always McGilchrist is impressive. I just wonder if he is overdoing it here, caught a little in his own vision. Here’s one specific example:

Resentment would lead to an emphasis on uniformity and equality, not as just one desirable to be balanced with others, but as the ultimate desirable, transcending all others. As a result individualities would be ironed out and identification would be by categories: socioeconomic groups, races, sexes, and so on, which would also feel themselves to be implicitly or explicitly in competition with, resentful of, one another. Paranoia and lack of trust would come to be the pervading stance within society both between individuals, and between such groups, and would be the stance of government towards its people. [Is this a) accurate (is there an emphasis on uniformity?) b) reflective of left hemisphere biases. For example, trust decline could be related to societal complexity (less repeat interactions with a small community and more contact with strangers]

Such a government would seek total control – it is an essential feature of the left hemisphere’s take on the world that it can grasp it and control it. Talk of liberty, which is an abstract ideal for the left hemisphere, would increase for Machiavellian reasons, but individual liberty would be curtailed. Panoptical control would become an end in itself, and constant CCTV monitoring, interception of private information and communication, the norm. [Is there more government surveillance than e.g. in napoleonic wars, and is surveillance related to technological possibility more than left hemisphere possibilities …]

There are also minor over-reaches in empirical fact:

Over the last twenty-five years, levels of satisfaction with life have actually declined in the US, a period during which there has been an enormous increase in prosperity; and there may even have been a significant inverse relationship between economic growth and happiness there.6

I agree with the thesis here but the evidence that life-satisfaction has declined is controversial and there is substantial debate over what is happening here (is there just a normal flattening out of the utility curve etc).

According to Gallup poll data, throughout the 1950s the British were happier than they are today, despite now being three times richer in real terms. In 1957, 52 per cent of the population considered themselves ‘very happy’, compared with 36 per cent today. Most countries studied show either a decrease or at least no change in well-being despite an increase in prosperity; and no relationship can be found between happiness and economic growth.7 The main determinants of happiness, as one might have expected, are not economic in nature. As two researchers in the area remark, with some restraint, given the huge increases in material prosperity over the last half century for which robust data exist, ‘the intriguing lack of an upward trend in happiness data deserves to be confronted by economists.’8

Again here the obvious argument would be that people report happiness based on comparison – post WWII happiness levels were v high as people compared the present with the recent terrible past. Today people are comparing with a good past. Plus people’s estimate of happiness is based on what they perceive/know. We have much more knowledge today of problems etc etc.

The irony here is i generally agree with McGilchrist but I find the evidence presented in this section [one where i know the evidence well] much less robust and convincing than other sections of the book.


The Ills of Capitalism, the Possibilities of Abundance and the Limits of Land

Man does not live on bread alone. Capitalism’s material productivity has been matched by a desolation of spirit. This is not accidental: capitalism’s material success requires and rewards behaviours such as competitiveness, acquisitiveness, individualism and materialism. Capitalism is so successful because it is a self-sustaining material-spiritual system that is both aggressively expansive and able to transform its environment in order to create the conditions for its own expansion. Just as jellyfish (unintentionally) desolate and acidify their ecosystem, making it hostile to other species and hospitable to themselves, so capitalism (unintentionally) takes over socio-economic ecosystems remaking them in its own image.

The spiritual desolation of capitalism provides the opportunity for alternatives, but its material robustness make it hard to supersede. However, there is hope based on the arrival of an age of abundance and the opportunities of an information age with its costless copying. The latter is especially crucial as it offers a new alignment of material and spiritual productivity based on a culture of sharing, collaboration and community. The greatest potential obstacle is the limit of land: the ultimate rival, physical good. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to belive this limitation can be resolved either technologically or politically.

The Desolation of Consumerist Capitalism

They made a desert and called it peace. Tacitus

The way we live now. Trollope

Consider the sweep of recorded history, the vast majority of it dominated by hunger, incurable disease and grinding poverty. Against this canvas, we cannot but be impressed by the incredible, transformative power of market-based, individualistic capitalism and the improvements it has brought to in our material well-being in the last two centuries.

Through dynamic competition, specialization, capital growth and innovation capitalism has wrought rapid and dramatic changes in our quality of life that now extend to almost every person on this planet.

But! All those questioners from Buddha through Marx were on to something.

At its heart, capitalism – individualistic, competitive, consumerist capitalism – is fantastically materially productive but simultaneously spiritually desolate.1

The challenge for critics has been that whilst it is easy to diagnose the ills, it has proved hard indeed to find cures that help rather than harm the patient. The experiments we have witnessed in the last two centuries have not given us great confidence. The largest and most aggressive of them, in the form of communist dictatorships, have powerfully demonstrated the appalling costs that can result from sacrificing individual freedom and liberty for an (often sham) communal solidarity and greater good.2

But this does not change the fact that something is wrong.

In this essay, I focus on the “spiritual” problem: the disjunction of capitalism with the human spirit. I therefore also locate the solution in the same place. There are many great socio-spiritual philosophies which we can look to, whether emanating from specific figures such as Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Mohammed or from entire traditions such as the Pali Canon, the Vedas or the Judao-Christian Testaments. Of these all, the teachings of Buddhism, which themselves share much with many other traditions, offer the most powerful insights for our time.

Why? We are (gradually) reaching a point where the essential needs – food, shelter, healthcare – are being met. Yet, in the most (materially) “developed” societies, wants continue to multiply. We seem stuck on a hedonic treadmill, where each need satisfied only breeds another and where despite all our successes we must each still confront the fundamental fact of our ultimate individual death and extinction.

A good part of my contention here, is that the very process of modern capitalism results in the continuation of this spiritually unrewarding cycle. Whilst compensating us with materialities that are of ever diminshing value,3 capitalism enshrines virtues and attitudes that are, in a world of increasing abundance, ever less useful. Virtues and attitudes which are, in fact, positively harmful to our spiritual and mental well-being, whilst diminishing or discarding virtues and attitudes which would be of greatest value to us.

For example, in its promotion of competition and dimunution of community. In its protestant promotion of dutiful labour and joyless leisure, both oriented to an imaginary future whether old-age or the afterlife, over meaningful work and a joyful life in the present. In its promotion of acquisitiveness and its dimunution of satisfaction. In its preference for money and goods over people and ideas.

The problem is that capitalism is very infectious. It is so productive, at least in a material sense, that it is very difficult to (want to) resist. More significantly, it remakes what it touches in its own image and undermines the ability of alternatives to exist. It is like the situation in certain ecosystems, where a certain species, once it has a toehold, by its very existence, by the things it consumes and excretes, remakes the ecosystem to favour itself – making its inhospitable for other creatures but ever more suitable for itself.4

To pursuse the analogy. Capitalism remakes its “ecosystem” in at least three ways. First, its incredible material productivity acts as a constant incentive for defection from other ways of life. Second, the basic ethical and spiritual philosophy of capitalism undermines alternatives – especially collective ones – by detaching the least attached adherents, and undermining the productivity of those alternatives (for example, moving collective groups to marginal land, by accumulating more weaponry for capitalist-based groups etc). Third, capitalism creates an environment for its own participants that favours certain ways of being and acting, e.g. acquisitiveness, individualism, materialism reinforcing these behaviours, even, one could say, addicting individuals to those ways and makes them ever more resistant to alternatives. For example, a profit-oriented social network may engage wish users to spend as much time as possible on their platform in order to maximize the attention they can sell to advertisers.5

We must recognize and respect this if we are to grapple with it. Moreover, we must go beyond antithesis: to be against X because capitalism is for it. To do so would be to remain enmeshed in capitalism’s narrative just like a child rebelling against its parent is still trapped in their parent’s world.

The challenge traditionally of any alternatives to capitalism is that they have appeared handicapped by a hugely diminished (material) productivity.

Possibilities of Abundance

But! This is changing for two, linked, reasons:

  • Abundance – growing wealth and the machine age
  • The digital, data revolution and its costless sharing

First, we have (growing) abundance – at least in some significant portions of the world. In it simplest form abundance is the fact that we have grown dramatically materially and technologically wealthier. As we get materially wealthier, new material wealth will do ever less for our well-being – compare a man needing the food to keep him alive and a man “needing” an extra car. In addition, our systems of production have gradually evolved so that we have ever cheaper machines to help perform production ever more cheaply – and machines that make machines.

The second point is the digital, data revolution.6 Data is different. It reproduces costlessly and is naturally shared. It is fundamentally different from the physical economy we have been in for the last ten thousand years.

In a data age, the “good” that we are producing is data7 and this good has a nature that is a natural fit for completely different forms of productions and consumption to the ones we are used to. In particular, the tension between “spiritually” attractive ways of doing things – based on sharing, mutual support, collaboration – and the productive way of doing things (exclusivity, conflict, individualistic) dissolves and we are left with a complementarity rather than a conflict.

Thus, the data revolution offers itself as a resolution to the contradictions of capitalism and a way to create a new future that is beyond any of the “isms” that we have become inured to.

Part II: Fleshing out an Alternative and the Limits of Land

We must put some flesh on the bones of this bare outline.

In addition, we must address some of the obvious objections to this roseate and optimistic vision. Most specifically: human beings do not subsist on bits – they need food and shelter. Both of these lead back to land – whether for housing or for crops. And land is most definitely physical and “rival” – in fact, it is the ultimate rival good – along with people (and their attention). This is an important point to consider.

The current individualistic, capitalistic system has been utilizing the earth’s core physical resources – agricultural land, water etc – inefficiently and destructively. This is for a simple “economic”8 reason: externalities.

Externality is a fancy sounding term for a simple idea: that I do something but there is an effect on you that I don’t account for (and account for would mean (usually) pay for or be paid for). For example, suppose I play my music very loud on Saturday night and keep you up: that would be an externality. Or suppose I run a chemical plant and produce toxic waste that I pour out into the neighbouring river without telling anyone: that would be an externality because I do not bear the cost of that pollution but others do. Or, suppose we both fish the same stream, the result may be overgrazing because each of us ignore the impact of our fishing on our neighbour’s catch (this is the famous “tragedy of the commons”).

These are examples of negative externalities – whilst producing a benefit for myself I impose a cost on you. Externalities can be positive too: suppose I plant a beautiful tree in my back garden and it brings shade and beauty not just to me but to my neighbours. Or suppose I install security cameras to prevent break-ins on my house and they deter thieves from the whole street. Or, relating back to the digital and the non-rival, suppose I come up with a new scientific advance or great new joke: this will benefit lots of other people as well as myself (and is very hard to charge for!).

These examples should make clear that externalities are frequent. But what is the problem?

Focusing first on the negative externality: by their definition they involve me doing something to you that imposes on you and which is not accounted for. This means that I will not trade-off the benefits and costs correctly. To go back to the loud music example: suppose I love playing my music loudly on a Saturday night but I also have a young daughter who usually goes to bed at 9pm. I will need to carefully weigh up the enjoyment I get playing my music louder past 9pm versus the cost of a grumpier daughter tomorrow. But suppose I do not have a daughter but you, my neighbour, do have one. Suppose I do not know you or know about your daughter. I will now be quite happy to play my music loudly until I go to bed at midnight, entirely ignoring the cost imposed on you.

And the result of failing to take account of those external costs should be very obvious: I will over produce or over use whatever is the benefit to me. I will play my music for longer, my chemical plant will (over) produce (“good”) chemicals (and hence over “produce” “bad” chemicals – aka toxic waste), I will over-fish the shared fishery and over-pump the oil well.9

Externalities are seriously problematic for modern, individualistic, market-driven systems for three reasons: first, because they are “outside” the market and hence “unpriced”, faced with externalities market-driven systems are likely to produce suboptimal outcomes – the river will get polluted, music will keep you up at night. Second, the individualism, profit-orientation and scale of capitalism combine both to incentivize ever-increasing production – which worsen the problem – and undermine alternative (“collective-based”) mechanisms one might use to address the problem.

Now, if externalities were just about your neighbour playing there music too loud, this would not be a huge problem. However, it turns out that there is one area where externalities are present everywhere most importantly in the physical environment in which we live ranging from the seas and rivers to the very atmosphere we breathe. This last is significant. Uur atmosphere is one of the most obvious “commons” of all: the smoke you emit will not stay over your factory but can travel around the whole world. And today, at the start of the twenty-first century, we have discovered that one of the subtlest externalities of all threatens our very existence on the planet: the gradual warming of the entire planet due to the increased levels of of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from human causes.

Fundamentlly this earth has a limited number of humans it can sustain at a reasonable standard of living given current and near-term technology.10 Many estimates put the earth’s carrying capacity at or below the estimates for the world’s total population either today or in the near future.

Addressing these profound challenges will undoubtedly require us to use the incredible power of prices and markets to align incentives and distribute goods. However, these market-mechanisms will only be of use at the more surface level, and that, at the core, there must be some profound alterations that are not market-based. For example, take carbon dioxide and global warming. This is perhaps the most serious risk we face today, precisely because it kills so slowly and so subtly.11

One attractive solution is to find a way to “price” carbon dioxide emissions to reflect the actual harm they do. If this was done successfully, they we could allow the market to work its magic using this price and efficiently and effectively allocate reductions in emissions.12 But how to get a “price”? To do that, we will in essence have to do two things that are “before” or “beyond” the market.

First, and by far the easiest: make CO2 emissions trackable and “right” to make them “ownable”. With current technology this is increasingly feasible, especially as emissions – or their obvious sources – are reasonably concentrated (fossil-fueled power plants, construction, airplanes and cars). Second, agree to impose this tracking and associated pricing across the entire planet: CO2 lives in the atmosphere and can travel anywhere it likes so if we leave out countries, industry and other activities that are CO2 emitters can relocate there avoiding payment for their CO2 emissions. This second change at its heart is about fundamental coordinated collective action at the global level. It must be understood as such, and whilst it may create rules that ultimately allow for a solution that utilises markets, at its core it is about coordination and collective action which are the very antithesis of the market’s distributed, individualistic nature.

Let us focus back on the “land” problem, after our detour into externalities and the problems they create for individualistic capitalism.

Put succinctly the “land” problem is that man cannot live on bits alone. At the minimum, we need physical space in which to live and shelter from the elements, and we need sustenance for our body in the form of food and water. Thus, whilst bits may gradually take over regarding what we produce, until the day comes when we upload to silicon, the future of bits does not remove these core needs that come back to land.

Now, in the first instance we could look to the abundance point (the first of the two we made about the change for capitalism). The change we are seeing is not just about bits: wealth has grown extraordinarily (at least for a sizeable minority of the planet – and many others are moving that way). Abundance certainly has relevance to the question of food: we have got vastly more efficient and effective at producing food13. The abundance here is very literal: a peasant from the middle ages transported to a modern supermarket would certainly think they had arrived in Cockaigne, the mythical land of plenty.14

In real terms, or as a proportion of average income, food costs have been constantly diminishing for the last two centuries or more – at least, in the west. The number of people who go hungry or who are malnourished has been reducing – and this in the face of an extraordinary increase in population of 10x or more. We even have – or could imagine – radically new techniques for making or growing food that reduce the dependence on prime agricultural land – for example, farming algae in the oceans.

As such, we could argue that abundance – or its underpinning in terms of greater efficiency and new means or production from new technologies and techniques – means that this is an area where non-rival land plays a lesser role. (This is debatable – for example, good arable land has held steady or even increased in real terms. If demand outstrips supply on food then prices may rocket, as will the price of land).

So let us focus on land for shelter. Here we are in much trickier territory. There is clearly a very fixed amount of land available on earth, and a much smaller proportion of it that is suitable for building on, and an even smaller portion with really attractive climate, and an even smaller part that can both be built on and have reasonable communications (road, electricity, internet etc) with other parts of the world. In addition, whether through desire for company or agglomoreation externalities humans seem to want to cluster into densely populated cities making land in such areas extremely scarce.

With land being fixed, and increasing demand both from population growth and the desire for more space per person, land prices will be rising rapidly.

Of course, there are some supply factors: humans can create new space, whether through reclaiming land or moving vertically by creating multi-storey buildings etc. We may also, at some point, be able to create space on other planets or worlds – though this still seems a very distant prospect and one with phenomenal costs.

Overall, these supply factors would likely be less powerful than demand, especially when we see that generating new space tends to be itself resource intensive (skyscrapers need a lot of concrete!). We can check this intuition against the data which bears this out. Knoll, Schularik and Steger (2017) present a long-term time series of housing prices for fourteen countries, showing that house prices have risen rapidly above inflation in the last fifty years:15

This is a very real constraint. We could imagine a future where bits, and even many physical objects that can be made by machines, are increasingly costless. But land prices are astronomical and swallow up practically the entire portion of your income (with the remainder going on food).

Is this a problem? Are there changes that could ameliorate or avoid this future? Finally, if it is a problem: what can we do about it?

1. Is this a problem?

This may not be a problem. After all, if everything else is free or nearly free, spending all the “income” we have on land may not be an issue (it could be an issue for power and inequality however – but we will return to that). This is somewhat conjectural situation: there are lot of unknowns about a future in which everything else is so “cheap”16 relative to land that land accounts for almost all spending.

However, at least, at first glance, this would be an issue, if only because of issues of inequality and power. In this world ownership or control of land would be immensely lucrative, giving rise potentially to immense concentrations of economic and social power.

So let’s assume, for the present, that it would be a problem.

2. What changes could ameliorate or avoid this situation (and are they likely on relevant timescales)?

Here are some changes we could imagine:

  • Advancing communications whether of the physical of the electronic will open up more areas of the world for effective human habitation. For example: a “matter-net” of lightweight drones may massively reduce transport costs, digital communications will lead to e.g. HD video becoming cheap and available everywhere in the next 20y thereby permitting “tele-commuting” from any location on the planet.
  • New forms of agriculture suited to unusual and non-prime environments: for example in the ocean, in desert or near-deserts or in or around cities. This would allow us to grow food in new locations and thus open them up for habitation or significantly reduce the transport costs of food to existing locations17. By increasing supply and reducing transportation costs this will counter-act the impact of increasing demand (and reduced land availability) on the price of food.
  • Population growth is falling or reversing in many areas of the world today and at a global scale population growth has rapidly slowed. Given the degree to which the (near) future is already written in demographics (we already know how many young people there are and how simple aging and reproduction dynamics will change total population), even with slower (or zero) growth we still anticipate a 50% or so increase in the world population in the next 50 years. Nevertheless, this slowing – and even reversal – is extremely significant. A world with 6 billion people is very different from one with 9 or 12 billion. Moreover, it is clear that popluation dynamics have a very significant cultural component, and so there still seems much room to effect changes in our maximal population size.
  • Living space needs have a large cultural components – think of kibbutzs vs mcmansions. If we were willing to adopt different forms of living we could potentially reduce space needs signficiantly. However, this has a large coordination aspect and may have issues around inequality and freedom. For example, without some regulation we could end up with “masses” living in crammed high-rises whilst the few have their own private islands. If we do impose some kind of regulation, to provide fairness and equity this may impose on individual freedom in certain ways.
  • Going into space: this has already been mentioned. There are no nearby planets that will not require significant terraforming in order to offer the same kind of habitability as earth. In addition, we seems decades if not centuries from cost-effective mass transit systems into space. As such this option can probably be deemed irrelevant in the medium-term (e.g. the next 50-100 years).

Overall, it seems possible – even likely – that some combination of advancing technology and changing needs (arising from culture or changing population size) will make a real difference here to the potential “land shortage”18. However, it is not certain – and it definitely remains possible that these changes are either not sufficient or will not occur on a suitable timescale (and we’re interested in our lifetime!).

3. If it is an issue, what can we do about it?

Finally, what happens if the “land issue” is a problem and no technological or other resolutions have been found. What could we do about it?

There are several obvious potential answers. The most obvious is that States acting on behalf of the great bulk of their populace would take over or otherwise heavily regulate land ownership and rent in order to ensure its affordability, availability and fair distribution. The model might be more one of cooperative group ownership with some kind of rent oversight rather than outright nationalisation or classic rent control to avoid corruption and minimize the distortion of incentives which are so often attendant upon regulation in this area.

For example, we still want choice to operate, for “price” to reflect choice (i.e. if everyone lives by the sea, prices are higher there), for price to incentivize the “creation” of new land or new alternatives to land, and for quality of land and housing to be maintained and improved. At the same time, cooperative living – perhaps even mass communal living – may not only be effective as a way of allocating this scarce resource most effectively but also offer its own benefits in terms of connection and mutual support, especially in a world increasingly dominated by the digital where we risk retreating into our isolated cocoons with other human contact increasingly infrequent.


Photographs by Jomjakkapat Parrueng unsplash


  1. As an aside we note that capitalism is not without its contractions. For example, capitalism is closely associated with markets: capitalism is often short-hand for free-market capitalism. But, as Coase so neatly pointed out, even in its most individualistic, market-oriented form, most production under capitalism takes place inside firms or institutions that most closely resemble command-and-control. We atomize our production and consumption not to gain freedom but to embed ourselves in hierarchy. Jefferson’s yeoman farmers are a far cry from the realities of industrial capitalism. [return]
  2. This is not the place to offer an exhaustive analysis of the wrongs or rights of these experiments, or their relation to socialistic approaches to organizing the economy or society. However, as one aside, it is arguable that the terrible authoritarian experiences in Russia and China under communisum owed much to their prior authoratarian histories rather than socialism or communism itself. Communitarian experiments on Israeli Kibbutzs and a socialised wartime economy in the US and the UK during the second world war did not result in dicatorship or gulags. [return]
  3. In fact, given the level of wealth in the most well-off societies, there are only two possible reasons for continuing the current system. First, healthcare improvements tending to some kind of immortality (an obvious craving of humans for thousands of years). Second, technological progress as some kind of end in itself, or perhaps with the end of creating some kind of being that supersedes us (likely, at least initially, a silicon-based computerized one). Neither desire seems deeply well (both seek to cheat death rather than face it). [return]
  4. “According to Lisa-Ann Gershwin’s disturbing book, the jellyfish is an ‘angel of death’, a harbinger of ‘planetary doom’ likely to be the ‘last man standing’ in what she describes as our ‘gelatinous future’.” [return]
  5. for powerful and moving testimony – in large part because there is no didacticism – to these effects it is worth reading the extraordinary travel writings of Norman Lewis. Most notably, Voices of the Old Sea, describing Lewis’ experience in a Spanish fishing village on the Mediterranean on the eve of its development and evolution into the “Costa del Sol”. [return]
  6. One might ask whether these two points are distinct: after all, this transition to an era of machine-based production – from making cars to washing clothes – is itself intimately tied to the advance of the digital and, specifically digital data. However, the points, whilst related, are distinct. Machines are still “rival” goods – I can only use my washing machine to wash a single set of clothes at a time. The robot on the assembly line still only assembles a single car. But data is different. Data is naturally shared. [return]
  7. and using to produce itself – data plus processing (minds or machines) is what we use to create new data) [return]
  8. The term economics is a loaded one in everyday speech – often connoting a focus on money, profit and business. “Real” economics, of the kind actually practiced by academic economists is different. Its central focus is total societal welfare composed of both “consumer surplus” and “producer surplus” (profit) and in in which consumer surplus is normally by far the most important part. For economists “perfect markets” would usually involve perfect competition and zero profits and the most important thing would be consumer surplus. For economists, a book that enters the public domain after the expiry of copyright obviously produces more social welfare even though revenue is lower. For economists the airline industry with its zero net industry profits over the last fifty years is probably one of the best industries we have ever had in terms of generating consumer surplus and societal welfare. For economists highly profitable firms or industries are not a sign of success but an indicator of the failure of competition. This is a far cry from the business pages. [return]
  9. Oil forms in large pools (somewhat like water aquifers) deep under the ground. Thus, unless I control all of the area above the pool I will not be the only one who can drill a well into the pool and extract oil from it. In competition with others to extract the oil from the shared pool I will pump and sell oil faster (and perhaps more cheaply) than would be desirable if I owned the entire oilfield or than is socially desirable. [return]
  10. The number of humans supportable is technically known as “carrying capacity”. See e.g. Joel Cohen, How Many People Can the Earth Support [return]
  11. This is the ultimate case of “frog in boiling water”. The boiling is happening so slowly it is barely noticeable. [return]
  12. reductions could well be pass “net zero” – i.e. reductions would entail not just reducing the rate of increase but actually taking us to a point where CO2 is removed fro the atmosphere. [return]
  13. This is not to ignore the major externalities in agriculture, or the major issues of modern intensive farming. However, even completely organic and sustainable techniques have seen huge increases in yields in the last few centuries, due to scientific advances and the dissemination of best practices and technologies. [return]
  14. A mythical place where food was ever plentiful. For a medieval peasant, living with the constant potential of famine, a monotonous diets and frequent shortages the plenty of a modern supermarket would be simply mind-blowing. [return]
  15. See Knoll, Katharina, Moritz Schularick, and Thomas Steger. 2017. “No Price Like Home: Global House Prices, 1870-2012.” American Economic Review, 107(2): 331-53. [return]
  16. cheap in price not value – as basic economics teaches us the relationship of price and (use) value can be tenuous. [return]
  17. transport costs for food are not, at present, a large proportion of cost, at least in urban environments. However, they are significant for locations where population is relatively small (as economies of scale are much reduced) and thus relevant here where we are considering opening up new (more remote) areas for human habitation. [return]
  18. It would be interesting to really do the math here. How much habitable land is there? How much food do we need to produce? [return]

Pragmatic Utopians

I like to describe myself as a pragmatic utopian – and Art Earth Tech as an exercise in pragmatic utopianism. Utopianism seems to have a bad name today. I wrote this as a response to that presumption of guilt during the first Art Earth Tech nucleus retreat. ~ Rufus Pollock.

We talk of smart cities but not wise ones. We are caught in a trap of small visions, and a disappearance of hope.

We are utopians. We should be able to say this proudly and without explanation but that is not yet so.

We therefore should make clear what a utopian is and is not.

For example, a utopian does not believe there is only one true way or that there is the ultimate perfect state (after which comes the end of history).

Utopia is a “mountain with no top”, an endless gesturing towards an impossible perfection. The utopian believes in the possibility of a radically better future: for ourselves, for our societies, for our planet. And, most importantly, that this future is realisable.

Furthermore, utopianism should be, in a profound sense, realistic. It is not simply idle dreaming or an impossible ideal. It is intended to be realised, albeit incrementally and approximately. It should also be deeply pragmatic: concerned with means as well as ends, open to the possibility of the multiplicity of both, seeking evolution rather than revolution. Most importantly it means being experimental and open-minded. In short, if utopia is a mountain with no top, then utopians are happy to explore different paths up the mountain.

The reassertion of our utopianism matters because we have forgotten our imaginations. We have not dared to dream because too many of our dreams became nightmares. Now, too often, we sleepwalk, already robots, waiting for the robots to come. But we can come awake. We can renew our visions, believe again, and do so without the arrogance of certainty, but sustained by open-minded faith.

Image by Sharosh Rajasekher unsplash

Epilogue: to reflect this reclamation of a positive utopianism perhaps we should rename it: from utopia to eutopia – from “no place” to a “well place”.



Rufus and I are starting a mini research project on “Techno-solutionism” – What we see as the (oft-fallacious) belief that “Tech” (alone) can solve our hard societal problems.

We plan to gather examples of Techno-solutionism in a couple of specific areas such as democracy / trust and global warming / environment. For example:

  • The belief that Block Chain, Civic Tech stuff can help “fix” democracy, keep politician accountable and increase voter participation …
  • The belief that energy generation/storage technologies, Tesla, 3D printing (…) will be sufficient to help us fight climate change.

We would be happy to have your ideas & inputs on this topic. And if anyone wants to contribute to the research, please let us know !

For the moment, Here is a great take-down on civic Tech:

And here is Rufus’ anti- blockchain rant:

See also the recent post setting out a typology of problems which is directly relevant here: The Four Types of Problem

For me, a big problem is that Technosolutionism leads us to believe that personal sacrifices won’t be necessary to solve these hard societal problems:

  • “I won’t have to spend too much time reading through the presidential candidate’s proposal – an algorithm will tell me what my preferences are”
  • “I prefer flying to New York to do an internship on the use of new materials in renewable energy rather than staying in La Cheraille to reduce my carbon footprint.”

But, we will have a hard time solving climate change if we continue to put all of our resources into finding ways to produce MORE energy, rather than trying to consume less ourselves.

Our hypothesis: Rather than more tech innovations; hard societal problems like climate change and democracy require innovation in human coordination mechanisms and a transformation of our desires – a “transformation of our being”.

Appendix: Examples