Democracy and Interacting for Benefit

I’ve said it before in this blog, and I’ll say it again: It takes all kinds to make up this big, crazy world.

I’m sure many of you followed to some extent the recent U.S. elections. Interesting stuff, democracy. There were certainly some ugly moments, and I’m not talking about the regular old mudslinging between candidates. That’s always ugly. I’m talking mostly about the discourse between supporters of opposing candidates/parties.

Most of what I saw comes from online forums and discussions, where the level of reasoned discourse was really quite low, but given relative anonymity and high tensions, I’d submit that this is a pretty good representation of what people really thought and felt. I “liked” all the relevant candidates on Facebook. You know, so I could get all the propaganda.

Social media and communication technology is amazing—and will likely contribute to the evolution of society in a very real way—but some of this stuff was just embarrassing.

Perhaps this can be most illustrated in Mitt Romney’s now-infamous “47%” comment, in which he basically called 47% of the U.S. population a bunch of moochers in an attempt to draw attention to a deeper issue he saw, that being that the state coddles a vast number of Americans. Romney hoped to drastically reduce entitlements to many of these folks, expecting that they’d get to work, contribute to the economy and the U.S. could save some money.

Boy, did the constituency pick up on this one. Republicans ran with it and the running theme in online discussions was that anyone who supported Obama must be a lazy layabout that depends on welfare to survive. From the other side, the rhetoric suggested that anyone who supported Romney must either have no heart or be wealthy and out of touch with social realities. Also, they both called each other stupid about every chance they got.

As we know, Obama won, two new states legalized gay marriage and two states legalized marijuana. The first ever openly gay member of Congress was elected, as was the first Buddhist. The left has declared a major victory, many of them thinking the Republicans and their message has been soundly thumped—and for good.

Now, I don’t think that’s true, nor do I think all of these folks are either stupid, lazy or both.

Something interesting about democracy is that, every election, the values that evolve, change and grow in society manifest themselves. Values inform our institutions from government to private organizations to non-profits and even the conventions we rely on to guide our everyday interactions in society. One could argue that values having to do with tolerance for diversity in society have, in a way, prevailed. Even Republicans are acknowledging that their defeat probably has something to do with being perceived as intolerant. Fair enough. But to think that the 2012 federal elections are going to silence that sector of society that objects to the welfare state (or nanny state, if you will), is a mistake.

When it comes to business, markets and the economy, what’s going on is conflict on a grand scale between different Interacting for Benefit mentalities. Every mentality has certain preoccupations which, if they go unchecked, can be damaging to economic activity.

The domestic/economic policies espoused by Obama and the Democrats favor a community-centered approach. To quote THEE:

“Community-centered policy-makers seek to redistribute wealth via taxation. This may reach levels that inhibit the entrepreneurial spirit. Similarly, egalitarian policies for the workplace often interfere with the efficient running of a business and actually generate unemployment.” 

Not surprising considering Obama began his political career as a community organizer in Chicago.

It is certainly admirable to want to have equality and security in one’s community, but taken to the extreme, it can be rather damaging. And this is exactly the crux of Republican economic criticisms. Of course, the rhetoric of the right, all the doom and gloom and talk about “the American way” was a big turn-off to those who might otherwise be willing to lend a sympathetic ear. Romney, on the other hand, seems to be primarily power-centered, and his market-centeredness might inform his view that welfare is a waste of money. Again, to quote THEE regarding power-centered individuals:

“Their earnings, when laundered through lawful businesses, provide them with an unfair advantage.”

Sounds a lot like the guy who made his fortune as a venture capitalist, wouldn’t release his tax returns, and kept presumably quite a bit of money in the Cayman Islands to avoid taxes.

This sort of mentality fosters cronyism, corruption and even calculated criminality. But don’t think that power shouldn’t be wielded in society. Imagine the drawbacks of true anarchy.

However, any victor would be making a mistake to think that any mentality will ever be removed from society. These are enduring human traits and, no doubt, these debates will rage on. And all mentalities serve society in one way or another.

Political parties, being both ideological and reactive to social pressures, do cater their messages to one way of thinking or another—and they do capitalize on outlining divisions and differences. Understanding Interacting for Benefit mentalities might go a long way in understanding your society and your role in it. And THEE offers some very interesting and helpful insights into how these mentalities can work together to generate benefit for all.

Who would’ve thought the way you think is immeasurably important in how your society functions. I guess you really are an important piece of the puzzle.

If Neuroscience is Correct, Then It’s Already the Zombie Apocalypse

Breaking news in the realm of popular neuroscience. Apparently, we are unable to think both analytically and empathetically at the same time. It appears to be part of a resurgence of the dual-brain theory, where one half of our brain handles certain activities and the other half handles the rest. However, what’s implied is that one side must be suppressed when the other side is getting down to business.

Now I’m no neuroscientist. In fact, I’m not a scientist at all. I’m more of an amateur, armchair philosopher at best. And I must say, I’m bemused.

It’s refreshing, however, that one of the researchers in this study, Anthony Jack, seems to have considered some of the more difficult questions. He said: "The most persistent question in the philosophy of mind is the problem of consciousness. Why can we describe the workings of a brain, but that doesn't tell us what it's like to be that person?"

Thanks Anthony, great question.

This new discovery, according to the researchers, finally explains why, for example, a highly analytical “CEO [can] be so blind to the public relations fiasco his cost-cutting decision has made?” Or why, “even the most intelligent, complex brains can be taken by a swindler's story.” Or, maybe on the other hand, why a highly emotional person can be oftentimes, irrational?

Well, what do you think? Make sense? If the brain can function in only one “mode” at a time as this report suggests, how do we explain method actors? These people are professionals at analytically bringing emotions to the fore at an appropriate time. Or jazz musicians, whose “emotive” improvisation is a fluid series of 7 to 12-note mathematical patterns that must be played with absolute precision for them to make any sense.

These acts require a true combination of the emotional and the analytical.

Overall, way too many questions arise when humanity is reduced to a series of chemical processes and electric signals responding to external stimuli. I sort of imagine a world full of zombies, dead in the eyes and wandering around aimlessly as whatever happens around them causes some reflexive response. As the study suggests, “you don't want to favor one, but cycle efficiently between them, and employ the right network at the right time." But who goes around oppportunistically selecting brain networks?

The problem with neuroscience (not that it isn’t fascinating, useful and should be pursued) is that it is often passed off as an objective study of the subjective question of what it is to be human, which is exactly what THEE is! But the marked difference is that neuroscience uses objectivist methods, tools and terminology. And THEE uses methods, tools and terms that fit more with the subjectivity of human experience. Furthermore, neuroscientists suggest that we can operate our brain--choosing neural networks to activate, when what we operate is our mind—choosing what to say, what to do, when to commit or when to step back and review analytically.

It’s likely that this article doesn’t tell the whole story and that it’s not the scientists who are pushing the idea that neuroscience will someday be able to explain consciousness; it’s a problem that lies in the larger society.

When scientists publish papers and the results of their experiments, these reports usually come with probability calculations and confidence assessments based on statistical calculations that only relate to the particular conditions of the experiment. Any generalization to wider society or everyday life is pure speculation without any scientific justification.

So why are these speculations and generalizations presented to the media? Why are the probabilities of error not emphasized? Because society doesn’t accept uncertainty or ambiguity. Society wants absolutes. It wants answers. It has decided that the job of science is to provide these answers. And unfortunately, scientists have no choice but to work and move in society and, knowing full-well that if their theory comes up short after the necessary rigor, they might not get grant funding, or become an outcast in their community.

Recently, neuroscience has become the scientific field du jour. And while the aforementioned quote by Anthony Jacks brings light to the reality that neuroscience isn’t going to necessarily crack the mystery of consciousness or answer the question of what it is to be human, society and science journalists seem to have painted it as just one MRI away from all of the answers. Journalists and their readers have taken neuroscience and tried to reach too far into the realm of psychosocial reality.

The chemical processes in your brain, or which neurons fire during a certain emotion or activity isn’t you. Being human is far more complex than that.

This is why it’s so important that THEE becomes a recognized and respected scientific institution, as so much of our scientific inquiry—from economics to neuroscience diverges from its actual subject—the human experience.

Doing: Spiritual, Scientific or All That We Are?

Doing things is difficult. The bigger your thing, the more difficult. If your thing is too big, it’s just impossible.

Sometimes it’s difficult to see the difference.

I’ve been on a lifelong quest to write a good song. It’s quite difficult. I want to write a good song and be recognized for it—much more difficult. I want to write a song that changes the world for the better. Impossible. Changing values changes the world—but we’ll avoid that topic for now.

Writing songs for me is a challenge I give myself. To be honest, it’s very rare that it works out and sometimes I get pessimistic. I avoid the challenge by avoiding my piano. I wonder if even writing a good song is impossible. Clouds gather. The rivers of thought and feelings get muddy.

But life is long, and inevitably the sun breaks through, the water clears. Something beautiful strikes a chord inside of me. What happened there? Let’s try to work it out.

I remember a Charles Bukowski poem. He spoke of a woman who wanted a big, airy, well-lit room in the city. Then, she said, she could get down to writing that book she wanted to write. Bukowski replied (and I paraphrase): “I’d still write in hell with devils crawling up my back.”

Bukowski was on quite the creation quest, but he makes a good point.

Think back on your life and everything you’ve done. The more you think about it, the more overwhelming it may become. You might end up really impressing yourself.

How did you do it all? Even in THEE, this bastion of logic, reason and science, things get spiritual. From a totally new angle, we can understand the perspective of the prophets, poets and sages who speak so freely with words like freedom and bondage, love and hate, despair and salvation. These powerful words, are they metaphors? Or can they be taken literally?

At our core, we are biology, chemistry and physics. We are aggregated atoms, but we sense—or feel—that there’s much more going on in us. Expand beyond the physical into the psychosocial. In the endless dualities that pop up in our lives, this is perhaps one of the most significant. We are chemical elements on one end, human elements on another. Will meets in the middle. Make no mistake, things like optimism and pessimism, courage and cowardice, joy and despair are real and which ones we channel have real effects on us.

Channeling them, making a choice between one or the other, takes a sort of spiritual invocation within yourself. This is not biology or conventional science. It is the deepest humanity, an internal force that, at its highest, is something bordering on abstract—but not theoretical by any means—something akin to passion or a personal constitution.


Optimism is as real as (and probably quite a bit more useful than) uranium. You don’t need any uranium, do you? If you want to get creative, you’re going to need some optimism.

That’s step one for me when I’ve decided to take up the challenge of writing a good song. I’ve got to believe I can do it. Why bother otherwise, right?

The spiritual aspect of THEE is of particular interest to me as a person who considers himself somewhat of an artist, writer and philosopher. The scientific side of it, for me, is a bit difficult, but there are many no doubt who would jump on it with gusto.

What we find (and you can watch WK describe this in a short video) is that some spiritual force is at work anytime you’re committed to an action. It’s a mind-bending realization and it can allow you to see yourself and what you do from a divine sort of angle.

I sometimes imagine THEE embedded in myself somewhere and when I commit to an endeavor, when I take responsibility for my purpose, various parts of it light up like those images of a brain you see when someone is being scanned as they try to solve a math problem or play chess or listen to music.

As I write a song, (or you perform your duties at work or solve a problem at home, or anything else for that matter) Willingness, Purpose, Creativity, my particular Quest, Communication and probably thousands of other elements in Willingness, Purpose, Communication and more--all affected by my particular Quest for Meaning in my life--start grinding into action, come alive, light up and start working together in harmony and guiding me as I guide them to my goal.

That’s my interpretation.

It’s this fantastic combination of the many pieces and parts of being human that allow us to do—whatever we choose to do. I happen to view this from a philosophical perspective, you might see it as science or, as THEE develops as more and more people engage with it, in your own special way.

A Conversation with Myself On Being Human

Who are we? Who are you and I? What is it to be human?

Big questions indeed! And it’s not as if they haven’t been asked and answered time and time again, most often as metaphor:

Are we evolution’s endgame?

 Is life a stage and we are merely actors?

Are we pivot-points in history, part of a grand narrative and, as Kenneth Burke put it, entering the middle of a conversation and leaving in the middle of a conversation?

Are we just nodes in a vast social network, purely subject to the winds of larger forces as they swirl around us?

In short, yes.

These are certainly questions that force a wide perspective—and what more perfect venue then a blog entitled “The Big Picture” in which to tackle them? Answers would be interesting, no doubt, but how about useful? It’s unlikely. We could easily pitch back and forth between theories of reality, personhood, identity, etc. And in the whole mess, we might forget about the more important question: who are YOU?

I haven’t the foggiest. But I am in a unique position to know who I am. And in considering the previous list of questions for myself, I give myself perhaps a better vantage point when it comes to what to do. That’s really the endpoint of any philosophical question, isn’t it? What should I do –or- should I do anything at all?

I, like yourself no doubt, am an individual with my own thoughts, ideas, opinions and attitudes. I’m part of a family. I have to work. I endeavor to continue living. And whatever I do, I have to move through my particular society. Sometimes my society makes me proud, other times I’m a bit disgusted, but for the most part, I just get on with it. I have pressures, stressors, challenges, frustrations and blissful moments.

It would seem that everyone is in the same boat, which is true to an extent, but we’re still looking at things from too wide an angle. Humanity is a nuanced organism, with an array of subtle but significant differences. Imagine taking everything from the previous paragraph and changing the context—different thoughts, ideas, opinions, attitudes, families, employment, society, pressures, stressors, challenges, frustrations, etc. Things aren’t looking too similar anymore!

If we’re all actors on the stage of life, everybody has a different stage. If we’re living out some narrative, each story is strikingly varied. From this perspective, what it is to be human starts looking impossibly complex.

This is why it can become difficult to moralize—or even give good-natured advice. Making sense of life becomes rather intimidating. We start making things easier on ourselves by categorizing and pigeonholing, accepting things at face value. We subscribe to ideologies, letting some dominant social value deduce the answers to countless questions for us. We start thinking in terms of magic bullets, where one problem’s solution must be the solution to everything else. We put things into one of two boxes: good or evil, right or wrong, constructive or destructive.

But, as we’ve established, being human isn’t black and white, it is the entire spectrum of colors. Strip away the shortcuts and identity and then social roles and relations to others look chaotic, circular, maybe even pointless. Suddenly, your personal stage is occupied by an impossibly enormous symphony orchestra as it warms up—things look familiar but they aren’t working together and the result is a loud, terrible, anxious dissonance.

Recently, I’ve been borderline obsessed with the question of “good” or “right” information. Refer to a previous blog about common sense. I’ve been nearly driven to the brink by the realization that nearly every assertion has an equally valid counter-argument. Even history, which we think of as a series of concrete events in the past, are subject to the perspectives of historians, or editors, or publishing houses or entire societies.

Which is why, maybe, perspective is the key word. Maybe the question isn’t, “What is it to be human?” We know that on a very basic, intuitive level. Maybe the question is: “What is it to be me?” What are my patterns? What do I think about “x” or “y”? How do I react to given, repetitive situations and why? Do my behaviors serve my purposes?

There are great advantages to self-awareness.

Mostly, who we are works quite well for us. We get by, survive, even have a bit of fun now and then. But there will inevitably be times when something doesn’t work the way you want it to. Maybe you’re not doing well in a relationship or a job. Why is that? Who better to examine then yourself?

Perhaps your path to self-awareness lies in meditation, or reflection or mathematical calculations of your past and present, involving lists and charts and whatnot. I don’t know.

But you might consider some things in THEE as a launch pad. Interacting for Benefit is widely relevant, as is Your Better Self. You might be able to see yourself more deeply, and as a bonus you will see pictures of others and what makes them tick. Just an idea.

The point is, philosophy is great at questions. The social sciences are good for broad categorization and identifying commonalities. When it comes to you, what works for you in your particular context, you’re different and unique. It might be useful to treat yourself as such.

Your Role in Truth

When I became a dad, my grandmother gave me some advice (which is quite rare, actually). She told me to stop listening to all the parenting advice, reading the parenting books and scanning the parenting blogs. I would only start doubting myself. She told me that when she was a mother, they had one book: Dr. Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare. The book opens with: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”

I initially thought: ‘things are different now.’ We’re an information society, working in an information economy and inundated by a dizzying array of information. The funny thing is, with all this information, it actually seems easier to have no idea what’s really going on in the world—which might have been what my grandmother was talking about.

For example, against my better judgment, I’ve found myself engaged in a political debate on the Internet a few times. Mostly, it resorts to name-calling but occasionally; you get into it with someone who wants to really get to the bottom of an issue. Someone will make a case and provide a link with supporting information.

You’ll check it out, it seems reasonable, but within 20 seconds, someone is providing a link supporting the opposite view. You look into it, it seems totally reasonable.

What’s going on? You’d think with nearly all of humanity’s knowledge at our fingertips, we could start making informed arguments and maybe, we’d actually solve a problem or two.

First off, we must acknowledge the trickiness of truth, which can be more of a value than some universal axiom. I’m partial to the idea that there are axiomatic truths out there—and I think it wouldn’t be too hard to point some out. But in many cases, truth is what the “experts” tell us it is. To ancient Mayans, it was “true” that human sacrifice made corn grow. And for most of human history, it’s been “true” that women were somehow naturally inferior to men.

Who’s telling us what to believe now?

Of course, experts are still trying to get you to listen to them. Check out this article, the first line of which reads: “If science doesn’t inform the decisions we make, the consequence is that people suffer.”

Oh no! Tell us what to do, science! The author is basically arguing for the primacy of but one of seven methods for making decisions. Sometimes use of science works and we can get a great optimum result. Fantastic! But very often science is just not applicable because the situation is too chaotic, or the emotions surrounding the choice are too intense, or the time and cost of getting facts is prohibitive, or supposed knowledge is debatable.

So, in many cases, science doesn’t even apply. It seems to me that most people’s everyday problems revolve around economic concerns. I don’t think biology or physics can help with that. But can economics?

I’m skeptical, especially considering the current state of affairs. Almost no one can understand what these economists are talking about—which is of great use to politicians, whose justifications for policies often go something like: “Well, you wouldn’t understand, because, you know, based on median incomes adjusted for inflation, compared to 1968 milk prices, the output of the technology sector is, well, with nominal wages and all, aggregated. Here, look at this graph with Greek symbols on it. Just trust me. Go shopping. Please? And encourage your congressman to vote yes on the JOBS bill.” (Which really stands for “Just Outsourced your Business to Singapore.”)

Here’s an article on modern economics if you’re interested. It’s quite enlightening regarding how totally unenlightening economics is.

So what’s the answer? Well, I see two possible options:

  • Become highly specialized in one specific field, stick to it and find comfort that there’s one thing you truly understand. 
  • Use common sense. 
Considering the ship has probably sailed (for me at least) regarding the first prescription, let’s unpack common sense.

This can be tricky as well. If you’re a politician, for example, it might be common sense to “bend the truth” a bit—while campaigning or presenting a policy proposal to your constituency.

It might be common sense for a CEO to lay off hundreds of employees if profits aren’t good enough.

But we don’t want to advocate lying or depriving others of their livelihood. The truth is, common sense isn’t really “common.” It’s not some moral axiom that applies to every individual or every level of society. It’s highly personal and using it only requires a bit of awareness.

I had a co-worker once when I was a young, fiery fellow. He had spent most of his life working a high-paying, but unfulfilling job and, at the age of 45, left it all to become a helicopter pilot. I was struggling with how to approach life and I went to him for advice. He said: “For me, when I’m wondering what to do, I just ask myself: ‘Does a particular course of action take me closer or further away from what I want?’”

Now that’s a common sense question! And the answer isn’t going to be the same for everyone. For a money-driven individual, quitting a high-paying job at 45 to learn a new skill might take them further away from what they want in life. For my co-worker, it took him closer.

The world can be unbelievably confusing. It might seem like we can’t trust facts, or experts or authority figures. In the end, that just leaves you. What makes the most sense to you?