Screened Out?

Screened Out? 

What if the “selective mechanism” and bases of selection that govern which ideas and paradigms are embraced by society—and which aren’t—are shaped and enforced by the very social constructions and institutions most in need of reform?  Put another way, what if the gatekeeper understands, full well, who and what butters his bread?  In such situation, the selective mechanism screens out the very facts, ideas, and paradigm shifts that would correct and ideally reform the faulty assumptions, bad ideas, and unhealthy institutions most in need of change.

“Ye shall not pass!”, the selective mechanism—the gatekeeper—says to the corrected assumptions, better ideas, and institutional reforms we need most.  And thus they are thrown out, kept to the intricate books, ignored, or otherwise neutered.

This is the situation in which we find ourselves, largely by our own human creation.

The ideas and paradigms that gain traction in “modern society” are those with which someone can “create value” according to the prevailing concept of value—financial and materialistic value; the accumulation of capital; growth for growth’s sake.  Other ideas and paradigms can’t manage to get through, can’t gain traction.  They don’t offer the sorts of currencies that the financial-material market recognizes and wants.  Indeed, in truth, the most needed ideas are those that would threaten the validity and prevalence—indeed, that would expose the invalidity and undermine the prevalence—of the financial-material values; and thus those ideas in particular are stamped out or allowed to live only in benign intricate books and published papers.  Considered from the perspective of a compass that genuinely points North, the prevailing gatekeeper’s rule is actually “Out with the good, in with the bad.”  (Note 1)

The notion that Saint Peter guards the Pearly Gates of Heaven, or the notion that you might be able to achieve nirvana after living many lifetimes, these don’t have much relevance to whether you can eat, own your own home, see a doctor when necessary, or send your children to college.  Your boss and your banker are the folks that matter.

But I’m getting off track.   My main interests here have to do with the implications of all this for academic philosophy.

The prevailing selective (screening-out) mechanisms of modern mainstream society are, apparently and understandably, content if ideas that would cause them any distress remain safely in intricate books and published papers.  A few people read them, fewer still champion them, and hardly anyone bothers to fight for them.  This is also to say that ExxonMobil, JPMorgan Chase, Wal-Mart, and even cool Apple, Inc., along with both the Republican and Democrat parties (in the U.S.), are all content if challenges and corrections to their fundamental assumptions and ultimately harmful paradigms remain safely in the books and at the conferences.  Of course, the powers-that-be also love it when the people who claim to love wisdom have actually committed themselves to a perpetual pursuit of intricate knowledge, arguing mainly among themselves as the world turns (and heats up).

For the most part—there are some rare exceptions—modern academic philosophy obliges and plays its assigned and assumed role.  In effect, many modern Socrateses have banished themselves from the public forums that matter most today.  Philosophy Herself must be turning in Her grave.  Look at the world today: How could She not be?

This is all just another way of pointing out the applicability, to academic philosophy, of what Upton Sinclair famously observed:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

Or rather, Sinclair’s point is only half the point I’m trying to make: The other half is that the “salaries” are all determined and paid by the financial-materialistic-growth value system that’s a huge part of the problem.

As a consequence, academic philosophy either avoids the most pressing problems of society—including the false assumptions, faulty reasoning, and flawed paradigms that generate them—or is content to let the corrective knowledge and reasoning remain buried deeply in books and papers, largely unrealized in society itself.  By our actions, we, in effect, have redefined “love of wisdom” to mean the pursuit of book-knowledge, citations, and tenure.

This problem has become institutionalized.  Winston Churchill once observed, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”  Similarly, Marshall McLuhan is said to have said, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”  (See Notes 2, 3, and 4.)

Indeed, the problem seems to have become so institutionalized that many fish swimming in the bowl can’t see the water or the bowl, or so it seems.  Probably many see it, but don’t talk about it much.

So much for diagnosis.  What about solutions?  It’ll take more than a few people to point out the water and the bowl, to not only write that the Emperor has no clothes, but to do the things necessary to make sure the public begins to understand and begins to remedy the situation.

Here, perhaps, is some good and clarifying news:  The question “What does it mean to be a philosopher?” loses its relevance when we understand the larger picture.  In the overall scheme of things, it’s a Red Herring.  We are humans first, philosophers second.

Even if some of us define ‘to love’ as merely “to pursue”; and even if some of us define ‘wisdom’ as “knowledge”; and even if some of us believe that the so-called modern division of labor means that it’s not our jobs to bother much with the problematic assumptions and self-destructive paradigms upon which our societies are based; we nevertheless can’t reasonably abdicate our responsibilities as aware and intelligent humans.  No fair closing your eyes!  The human world will likely end up where it is headed, if it doesn’t change course.

We philosophers should ask ourselves:

Are we medical doctors, operating on hearts and livers?  Are we psychiatrists, prescribing drugs?  Are we psychologists and therapists, calming nerves and helping people adapt to the way modern things are?  Are we scientists in the narrow sense, and thus largely redundant with the scientific community?  Are we interpreters of scripture?  Are we historians?  Are we merely linguists?

No, no, no, and no!  So, we can quibble about what the phrase ‘love of wisdom’ might mean and the implications of this meaning for the profession—the job we thought we were signing up for—or we can get active and passionate to point out the false assumptions, the bad reasoning, and the faulty paradigms that are most active in our unhealthy, unjust, and unsustainable society.  Until something is actually done about them.

So, the question “What did I sign up for when I began calling myself a philosopher?” is not really the important question.  Instead, the question is more like this, as Bob Dylan put it:  What good am I if I know and don’t do?

(I remind readers of the lyrics to Dylan’s song, What Good Am I? because they are rich and relevant far beyond the single quote I’ve included here.)

A word on “evolution” and “revolution”

It may be interesting and helpful to think of this loosely in terms of “evolution” or “revolution”.  If the diagnosis presented here is correct, how can we get “from knowledge to wisdom,” as Nick puts it?  Will “evolution” suffice, or will some sort of “revolution” in philosophy and academia likely be necessary?

As most readers will realize, “evolution” occurs in a way that is governed by the relevant selective mechanisms, or pressures, and ultimate basis(es) of selection.  But what if these are determined and implemented by the very “system” that requires reform?  You see the problem.  So, we probably can’t expect real solutions to arise from any process, ideas, or level of effort that would be characterized as evolutionary.  Almost by definition, some sort of revolution—in thinking, in paradigms, in actions, and in persistence—will be required.  It won’t be sufficient for the orchestra playing on the deck of the Titanic to simply add a few violins and a French horn, and to play a little louder.

An admission and apology

Of course, all of these things are easier said than done.  Whether or not the diagnosis is wholly or partly correct, it’s far easier to diagnose something than to address it.  And, admittedly, it’s easier for someone on the sidelines of academic philosophy—who hasn’t actually played the game himself—to shout observations from the sidelines without fear of losing his contract or bonus, so to speak.  I apologize that I’m such a critical cheerleader.  But the stakes are high.  And I might be wrong.  I’m simply offering my view from the sidelines, for your consideration.


Be Well,

Jeff Huggins


Note 1 — An early commenter, Lee Beaumont, put the matter this way:  “To be fair, what is allowed in is whatever feeds the status quo, and revolutionary ideas—ideas that challenge the status quo—are screened out. …  Good = more of what enhances the status quo, bad = all else.  So these become relative terms, depending if you are in power (as a result of the status quo) or out of such power.”  The problem, of course, occurs when the paradigms, institutions, and associated practices that are “in power” as part of the status quo are destructive, unjust, unsustainable, or all three.

Note 2 — As far as I can tell, the latter quote actually comes from Lewis Lapham’s Introduction to McLuhan’s Understanding Media rather than from McLuhan himself, but I don’t know for sure.

Note 3 — Ronnie Hawkins, in a recent post on the Global Circle blog titled (or tagged) Superorganisms (November 4), characterizes the phenomenon of “screening out” as “the way individuals caught up in their institutional roles within superorganisms of various sorts and scales actively work to keep out facts, ideas and insights that would lead people to question and consider changing the organizing paradigm that maintains the currently instantiated superorganismal structure.”  She then continues by noting that some of this works in ways that are “quite conscious” while some works in ways that are “operative below the level of full consciousness,” somewhat instinctively.  I agree.  The only clarification I would add is that, in my view, the phrase “actively work to keep out” should be understood to mean, sometimes, “actively work to keep out,” but sometimes simply “avoid embracing,” in other words, “avoid taking in” (avoid adopting), which may often be an utterly passive phenomenon.  You can put good water in a trough, and you can even lead a horse to it, but you can’t make the horse drink, as the saying goes.  The horse need not “actively work to keep out” the water; the horse may simply not be able to “see” the water, or the horse may consider the water as being distasteful or harmful to its prevailing operative paradigms.  Or, the horse simply may not be thirsty for anything new.

Note 4 — A somewhat related idea, in part at least, comes from Marx:  “The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life.  It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”  (Karl Marx; Preface to A Critique of Political Economy; 1859)  If we consider Churchill’s observation regarding the interrelationships between humans and our buildings, McLuhan’s or Lapham’s observation regarding the interrelationships between humans and our tools, and Marx’s observation regarding the influence of our “mode of production in material life” and our “social existence” on our “consciousness”, we can better understand how the problems I’ve been discussing have become institutionalized and constrain the practice of academic philosophy or, at least, the sorts of ideas that are likely to gain traction in society, and the sorts that aren’t.  In this context, another great lyric from Dylan’s song, What Good Am I? to consider is this:

“If my hands are tied must I not wonder within
Who tied them and why and where must I have been?”

The institutions of academia and academic philosophy, both human-constructed, in turn tie the hands of academic philosophers, or at least truncate the sorts of ideas that can gain traction in the real world.  We’ve constructed our own box around ourselves, and now we seem to be boxed in.  But the box is floating along with the flow of a powerful river, heading into rapids and eventually a waterfall.  We’ll need to break out of the box we’ve constructed, and start paddling hard in a better direction.


21 thoughts on “Screened Out?

  1. Hi Jeff–

    Much to agree with in “Screened Out,” and I’m glad you posted it because I think talking about the screening-out process is the first step in breaking through the screen.

    I’m still playing with the right-hemisphere/left-hemisphere contrast, considering that the more we try to _visualize_ the large-scale, three-dimensional relationships that must pertain in the world, the less we will become so fascinated with the abstract linguistics, quantification and overdetail that play their own roles in the obscuration needed for the “screening out” to occur. As you say, “scientists don’t need to invent a whole new way to understand scientific (empirical) facts, and intelligent philosophers don’t need to invent new basic rules of reason, in order to point out that infinite material growth cannot occur on a finite planet, or that there is no such thing as an “invisible hand” that we can wisely trust to make everything work out dandy as long as every person and every institution simply strives to accomplish his or her or its narrow short-term self-interest.” No–these are rather simple “observations” that thinking people from various disciplines ought to be able to agree upon; their disciplinary specialties need only plug in to illuminate the details of the common terrain from their respective points of view.

    A comment on your response in Note 3 above–re my wording “the way individuals . . . actively work to keep out facts, ideas and insights that would lead people to question . . . ,” you say the phrase “actively work to keep out” should be understood to mean, sometimes, “actively work to keep out,” but sometimes simply “avoid embracing,” in other words, “avoid taking in” (avoid adopting), which may often be an utterly passive phenomenon. You can put good water in a trough, and you can even lead a horse to it, but you can’t make the horse drink, as the saying goes. The horse need not “actively work to keep out” the water; the horse may simply not be able to “see” the water, or the horse may consider the water as being distasteful or harmful to its prevailing operative paradigms. Or, the horse simply may not be thirsty for anything new.”

    A good point, and no doubt all of those possibilities come into play, depending on the circumstances. But I am curious about processes that are going on below, or just slightly below, the level of what comes to our conscious attention most of the time, and how “active” they might really be–especially if they are processes that in some way serve to build the coherence of the group the subject in question might be a “member” of. A very interesting set of experiments in social psychology by Bibb Latane and John Darley (reported in _The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help?,” 1970) that I used to teach in my ethics classes concern the willingness of a subject to actively try to help a stranger who is heard falling from a chair in an adjacent room. When alone, 70% of subjects called out or tried to offer assistance in some way; when two friends were put in the situation, at least one again tried to intervene 70% of the time, but with two strangers, helping occurred only 40% of the time; and when one subject was paired with a stooge of the experimenter, who refused to help or acknowledge the problem (the “Passive Confederate” condition), the subject showed helping behavior only 7% of the time. Most interestingly, “when subjects were asked whether they had been influenced by the presence or action of their co-worker, they were either unwilling or unable to believe that they had. Subjects in the Passive Confederate condition reported, on the average, that they were ‘very little’ influenced by the stooge; subjects in the Two Strangers condition claimed to have been only ‘a little bit’ influenced by each other; and friends admitted to ‘moderate’ influence. Put another way, only 14 percent, 30 percent, and 70 percent of the subjects in these three conditions admitted to at least a ‘moderate’ degree of influence (p < .01). These claims, of course, run directly counter to the experimental results, in which friends were the least inhibited and subjects in the Passive Confederate condition were the most inhibited by the other's actions" (p. 65). Too bad such experiments are generally frowned on today; there may be a very active "censor" working just below our level of consciousness to keep us "unaware" of social forces at play–the stronger the forces, the more "unaware" it makes us be!

    Moreover, another curious thing that might be relevant to "the horse simply not being able to 'see' the water" might be the left-hemisphere "neglect" phenomenon I described in another recent post. The sufferer of a right-hemisphere stroke may claim to be completely unaware that his left arm and leg are paralyzed, and may even be quite adamant that the arm hanging from his shoulder (if thrust in front of him) is NOT HIS arm; there is some kind of "failure to attend" to the entire half-field. It may be that, if McGilchrist is correct about our culture being excessively left-hemisphere dominated, there are many such "vital" facts of our xistence that are being similarly "neglected," seemingly an "utterly passive phenomenon" but perhaps having some very actively inhibiting neurological roots.

    A final comment on "evolution" vs "revolution": I agree that "Almost by definition, some sort of revolution—in thinking, in paradigms, in actions, and in persistence—will be required." Certainly, if we come to the conclusion that 1) a particular set of characteristics have come to dominate our culture to the virtual exclusion of their polar opposites, and that 2) this domination is moving us in the wrong direction, toward a very bad end, then some sort of reversal of direction is to be desired, i.e., a Kuhnian "revolution," not simply a continuing "evolution" in the sense of gradual accretion of more "knowledge." I disagree with Marx to the extent that I would rather say human social existence and human consciousness are likely to be mutually reinforcing, but if they're locked into a feed-forward process that's taking us over a cliff (the later Heidegger had much to say about this), something is going to break us out of the vicious circle, sooner or later.

      • Hi Alan–

        In fact, I have read this essay three times now, and replied to it in detail somewhere on this list (I’m starting to get lost in the welter of comments coming in now), and there is much in it that I agree with. To be a bit autobiographical myself now, I am particularly sympathetic because I would say I, too, grew up as primarily a “naturalist,” avidly curious about and fascinated by the world of plants and animals and all their goings-on. That’s what led me to spend the first part of my education studying science.

        But I know of what you speak when you say: “there was also something else about the way the game is played that had always appalled me – a profoundly unscientific willingness to overlook natural truth for the sake of ‘winning.’ I wasn’t honestly prepared to do that. Indeed much of my own scientific research had involved revealing what I see as the natural and obvious truth that the ecological sustainability of life-forms in natural communities arises qualitatively,from the fluidity and presence of their boundaries as dynamic interfacings. It does not and cannot arise from the quantitative definability or absence of their boundaries as rigid partitions. Many scientists, both previous and present, have been and are predisposed to overlook this reality in their pursuit of academic success.”

        I remember one particularly vivid moment of gestalt realization that occurred as I was talking with two friends/colleagues about tortoises and other reptiles (they were both professionally herpetologists, as well as individuals involved in reptile conservation)–there was suddenly a shift in the point of view they shared toward the posing of “scientific questions” aimed at eliciting mathematical answers, cut-and-dried figures abstracted from the animals as “objects,” that I realized I did not share, nor want to share, with them. (I think they realized it too–there was a moment of awkward silence, as I recall.) It was not that I could not think that way, but rather that my own love for the living creatures prevented me from making that step into detachment that they seemed to feel was needed, i suppose, to “play the game,” as you put it.

        You say, “The notion of individual independence upon which analytical opposite-mindedness (and, for that matter, the Darwinian notion of ‘survival of the fittest’) depends cannot hold true for any life form that needs to assimilate energy from its surroundings in order to sustain itself. There is a life-inviting context that simply goes unrecognized by analysis alone. By the same token, no distinctive self- or group-identity can be completely dependent upon or interconnected with others if it is to have any room for individuation, growth and movement. The receptive, intangible space into which that self or group is free to grow and move cannot be excluded from its reach.” I would understand you to be getting at here is that, while one way of conceptualizing reality would have us break everything down into isolated, static parts and pieces, discrete “objects” that we can count and weigh, that analytic mode alone provides us with a most distorted picture of the world, and is indeed false if taken as the last word about what there is; it misses the ongoing dynamic temporality, and the interconnected and constantly interacting network of Life that we are enmeshed in, something we can only appreciate through conceptual/experiential synthesis. I wouldn’t want to throw out the Darwinian baby with the bathwater and reject the “theory of natural selection” in whole cloth, and I think we have learned a great deal from highly abstract fields like population genetics and ecological modeling, but it all needs to be integrated into what we experience as the flow of life, as living organisms ourselves, and how we choose our individual and collective trajectories.


        • Hi Ronnie and Alan,

          It seems to me that there are three things often missing from what might be called the “analytically rigorous disinterested stripped-down scientific view”: interest, rigor, and wholeness. To put them another way: (1) an attitude and empathy that living things deserve and that we humans should have for other living things. Living things are not rocks. Indeed, if we believe our own scientific understanding, we are all related. That tree is my distant cousin. I could have been that turtle over there. (2) the sort of “rigor” we think we have is not really “rigor” at all if it’s not whole, that is, if it doesn’t recognize the richness of the interconnections and the complexities and emergent properties and, also, if it does not acknowledge that even though we may know many things, there are many more things that we don’t know yet. (3) wholeness, which I’ve mostly explained in (2).

          And, these three things — 1, 2, and 3 — are related. Yet it might be helpful, for discussion purposes, to discuss each one before recombining them, All is related to all else, but it still helps to discuss different aspects and characteristics of things, so long as we recognize that that’s what we’re doing.

          Cheers and Be Well,


        • Dear Ronnie,

          Thank you. Much appreciated!

          Now, if I may, I want to invite you ‘out of the static whole’ and into the dynamic ‘hole’ …it makes a whirled of difference:-)! Please take a look, for example, at the following link:

          This is the ‘hole point’ of departure from definitive ways of thinking, whether reductive or holisitic, into a very different kind of awareness that embraces both biological and cosmological evolution as a process of cumulative energetic transformation, whilst recognizing that the latter CANNOT come about (indeed would be prevented) through ‘selection’ as a ‘process of competitive (or even co-operative) elimination’.

          So we need to move on from abstract notions of ‘we are all inter-connected’ into appreciating how we are all ‘pooled together’ in the ‘natural communion’ of each other’s influence (hence you might say we are all inter-influenced), within a limitless ‘sea’ of receptive space (~Agape Love). This really is the needed paradigmatic transformation that comes when we accept the vitality of our natural inclusion in and of receptive space.

    • Dear Ronnie, thanks for these great comments. I agree. A few quick thoughts:

      Much of what you are interested in, above, are the psychological and social-psychological dynamics involved. The curious part of me — the part of me that wants to understand myself and other humans better — is also very interested in these things. How are the different “sides” of our brains influencing and being influenced by the present culture? Has our removal from nature caused us to become internally “imbalanced”? And what are the implications — is this a downward spiral if we can’t change it? In some cases where the behavior of the person seems to be passive, might it be the case that a very “active” internal psychological and neuronal dynamic is causing the person to be passive in a situation in which she might otherwise be active, all aimed at helping the person “fit in” socially? These and other questions. They are fascinating.

      I’m keeping my eyes and ears open to try to figure out ways to alter the pattern in a positive direction — to try to figure out the sorts of “seeds of the paradigm revolution” (within academic philosophy and academia and the world at large) that could actually take hold and grow. My intuition (which is probably mostly in the hands of many of those deep under-the-surface biological and neuronal dynamics, as well as some that are only barely under the surface) suggests to me that, although those “seeds” must certainly be informed by excellent facts and reasoning — must hopefully be justified and supported by them — nevertheless, a great deal of the active potent meat of those seeds will need to involve action. It takes a combination of action and thought — indeed, mostly action — to really “communicate” and to inspire and move people. Thought is a good and ideal ingredient — any positive change of the sorts we’re talking about should be supported by excellent reasoning and an understanding of the facts of our situation — but action is a NECESSARY ingredient. Indeed, our brains exist in the first place because of (as a result of) our existence as moving organisms. Most people are only really “impressed” (to the point of considering changing their own way of thinking and behavior) by action. A general who says, “Hey you guys, I order you to go fight those folks over on that hill” is not very inspiring. A general who actually leads the charge himself is. (Of course, professional armies have ways to get around that. There are consequences if you don’t follow orders, and there is a great deal of indoctrination too. And, the social pressures WITHIN an army context are moving as well.) In any case, actions speak louder than words. So, some “very substantial” part of any “seeds of positive ‘revolution'” (understood in our context on the GC) that might have any chance whatsoever of taking root and growing, will have to involve actions that speak louder than words.

      This is, of course, because of the psychological and social-psychological dynamics that you and we are curious about, and would like to better understand.

      I have always suspected that you have a face and that you aren’t just some thinking and writing machine that had somehow gained a deep empathy for all life, so thanks for sharing it!

      Be Well,


      • Thanks, Jeff, and I wholeheartedly agree, action is necessary–what kind, though, is the real challenge. Was the “Million Mask March” that occurred a few days ago (to very little media coverage except by very “alternative” journalists) an efficacious “action”? Does blogging here count as “action”? Somehow I don’t feel like my 2 decades teaching mostly disinterested undergraduates at a huge, impersonal educational institution was “action” in any meaningful sense of the word. What alternatives do you see?

    • Another thought …

      Ronnie, I just read your response to another post, and that gave me this thought:

      You should consider going to the next conference of the Human Behavior & Evolution Society, which will be in Natal, Brazil next summer (2014) under the motto ‘Evolution, Society, and Culture’. HBES is a great and cutting-edge society of leading scientists and serious folks interested in evolution from all standpoints, biological and biological-cultural co-evolution, so to speak.

      I’ve attended several of their conferences and presented a “board” at one of them, They are amazing conferences — well worth it — and cover the whole range of latest thinking and issues, everything having to do with evolution, and they involve folks from the various leading schools of thought when it comes to the latest research, controversies, disagreements, and so forth.

      Here’s the link to their page regarding the latest conference. I think they probably show programs from previous conferences on their site too, or perhaps you can download them.

      Also, if you haven’t already, you might enjoy reading ‘Not By Genes Alone: how culture transformed human evolution’, by Richerson and Boyd. Pete Richerson was a past President of HBES and very active. Many people in HBES are also very concerned, of course, with the same world problems that concern us here — and these are folks that, from some crucial angles anyhow, understand the human dynamics involved in the Superorganism increasingly well. So, they are “like minds” in many ways. That said, even as their understanding is increasing and immense, alas, they are no exception to the problem of people with understanding having a difficult time finding the “way through” the self-imposed box of professional institutions to actually change things, beyond changing their own knowledge. Knowledge increases; yet human society remains foolish. Indeed, the HBES is a fascinating group, for many reasons, but one of them is that it can be seen as one of THE FEW groups of folks who should (and to a degree do) understand how it can be that “Knowledge increases; yet human society remains foolish” and yet can’t manage to actually DO anything about that — I suppose, “it’s not my job” is part of it. These are scientists, not activists, and from an institutional standpoint society has embraced a fairly solid “line” distinguishing these two categories of folks.

      Cheers and Be Well,


  2. A lot there Jeff.

    I’ve always referred to this as “Catch-22”. How to you succeed in a rational argument against what received wisdom considers to be “rational argument” itself? Answer you can’t. All you can do is create working alternative examples, treat them as a bridgehead, evolve and grow them until you reach some tipping point, etc …

    ie we need a paradigm shift to break out of that “box”.

    • Hi Ian, thanks for the comment. I agree with most of what you’re saying, but we might be using some of the terminology a little bit differently, or else I might slightly modify what you’re saying, as I interpret it.

      I would say that an important, and crucial, part of what can and should be done (not “all” you can do) is to imagine and “create working alternative examples, treat them as a bridgehead, evolve and grow them until you reach some tipping point, etc …”. And I definitely agree that we need a paradigm shift — or rather, more than one — to break out of that “box”.

      But, I think that fact, excellent reasoning, and rationality CAN be used in a successful way to expose many of the false assumptions, faulty reasoning, and destructive paradigms for what they are. Indeed, many of the most flawed and damaging ones are flawed in ways that very basic reasoning and facts can demonstrate. This is not to say that a valid and successful (in terms of argument) argument will always or even usually actually motivate someone to change his behavior, of course. But it is to say, for example, that scientists don’t need to invent a whole new way to understand scientific (empirical) facts, and intelligent philosophers don’t need to invent new basic rules of reason, in order to point out that infinite material growth cannot occur on a finite planet, or that there is no such thing as an “invisible hand” that we can wisely trust to make everything work out dandy as long as every person and every institution simply strives to accomplish his or her or its narrow short-term self-interest. The invalidity and foolishness of most, if not all, of our most damaging paradigms can be demonstrated and explained by means of our existing conceptions of science and solid reasoning. Again, this is not to say that this alone will result in behavioral change, nor even to say that many people will pay attention to these matters. This is why imagining and creating real and positive alternatives is a crucial part of the way forward — and fact and reason and real living alternatives, as well as art and rhetoric and so forth will all be necessary parts of the mix towards a more positive future.

      Cheers and Be Well,


      • Jeff,

        By definition you CAN’T use the existing definition of rational argument to argue against the existing definition of rational argument, however “excellent” the argument. Simple logic. Einstein said it well – you can’t solve current problems with current reasoning, to paraphrase. You can of course “use” alternative defintions and let the value speak for itself – many ways, obviously – bridgehead was my one-line metaphor.

        Argument at the same level is doomed – you need to “level-shift” into action and back to argument periodically – Hofstadterian “strange loops”.


        • Hi Ian. Thanks for the comment. You are getting into the words and “by definition” stuff to make an obvious point, but it’s not the one that I’m talking about. The fact that you can’t use “the existing definition of rational argument” to argue against “the existing definition of rational argument” is very nice, but it’s not what I’m talking about. Perhaps, rather than getting stuck with terms, consider the concrete examples I gave. Examples are better ways to illustrate what I’m saying. I’ll repeat, given the existing concepts and means of scientific understanding, and the facts as we understand them so far, and given what good reasoners (excellent reasoners, people who understand what a contradiction is, people who can take an argument to the bottom of a matter), you CAN with those present ways of knowing and thinking shoot major holes in the assumption/view that you can enjoy infinite material growth on a finite planet, or in the view that in everyone acts in his own short-term self-interest, an “invisible hand” will make everything work out fine. How can you, you might wonder? Well, it’s because those (silly) beliefs, although they are fairly entrenched in mainstream culture, are in no way consistent even with our present understanding of what good science is, and what good reasoning and logic are. They are not, in the first place, even supported by an excellent use of “the existing definition of rational argument”. When Einstein makes his point that you can’t solve a problem by the same level of thinking that created it, he’s criticizing a “level of thinking” — and goodness knows, very often the levels of thinking we put into things are abysmal, and not at all complying with what would be considered to be excellent scientific understanding and excellent reasoning. Put another way, if you mean this phrase quite literally — “the existing definition of rational argument” — and if you are really using that to refer to our best understanding of reason-and-fact-based argument, and not some silly flaw in “common logic says X”, then the (what I’ll call) LOW level of thinking that concludes that we should continue to rely on fossil fuels even as we understand that their use will cause the climate to change does not even, or even nearly, satisfy “the existing definition of rational argument”. So, in that particular case, we don’t need to invent a new standard of what we consider to be excellent logic and rationality in order to wake up to climate change and start shifting away from fossil fuels. No, we just need to apply our current scientific understanding (ever improving) and our existing best understanding of reason and logic to lift our “thinking” up from the garbage dump and into the living room. In other words, I agree with Einstein’s point, of course, and many others have made it too, but I don’t see the helpfulness of stating a much narrower point (if taken literally) that is a matter of terms and is true by definition. But again, terms can get us lost in the matter. Forget the terms. What I’m saying is simply this: It does NOT require a new conception or understanding of scientific method or science, and it does NOT require a new understanding of what should qualify as truly excellent reasoning, to show the flaws and problems with many, and perhaps all, of the most significant concrete problems that we’re causing for ourselves. To show that the population can’t increase ad infinitum on a finite planet. To show that we should greatly reduce our use of fossil fuels given that too much use will cause climate disruption. To show that you can’t have perpetual growth in material consumption and production on a finite planet. And so forth. Yes, it does take “a new level of thinking” (put loosely) in the culture and politics and in how corporations are governed, and so forth, to do this, but it doesn’t require a revolution in how we understand scientific understanding, or a revolution in how an excellent reasoner using excellent reasoning today would analyze a matter, if he does an excellent job of it. In any case, the examples should explain what I’m trying to say.

          Thanks Ian, Cheers, Jeff

          • Sorry Jeff, but you are indeed repeating yourself, you say:

            “I’ll repeat, given the existing concepts and means of scientific understanding, and the facts as we understand them so far, and given what good reasoners (excellent reasoners, people who understand what a contradiction is, people who can take an argument to the bottom of a matter), you CAN with those present ways of knowing and thinking shoot major holes in the assumption/view that you can enjoy infinite material growth on a finite planet, or in the view that in everyone acts in his own short-term self-interest, an “invisible hand” will make everything work out fine.”

            And I repeat, I disagree, we won’t make significant progress that way. (I didn’t miss your point, and you confirm the fact I didn’t, by emphasising your disagreement “CAN”.) I see your point, I disagree.

            Without repeating the screed, gimme one example.

          • Try this example Jeff:

            You said “it’s far easier to diagnose something than to address it”.

            I disagree, I say it’s easier to do the right thing (some action), than to rationally diagnose (analyse and reason) what’s wrong with existing rational analyses.

            (And it takes fewer words, but as I said, in a few words, give me a counter example.)

        • Hi Ian, I hope you are well. In response to your latest two responses, below, allow me to clarify something and then explain why I don’t think the discussion we seem to be having will be fruitful if we try to go any further.

          I agree, wholeheartedly, as I’ve said, with Einstein’s point — a point made by others as well — that “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” Indeed, I’ve been using that quote in my own work for at least seven or eight years. It’s in my 2006 book. And, if you consider them carefully, I think more than one of my posts make and illustrate the same point.

          But you are trying to make a point, to me, that you summarize by saying: “you CAN’T use the existing definition of rational argument to argue against the existing definition of rational argument …”. There are at least three problems with this, in terms of the present context and in terms of whether it says anything meaningful with respect to the points I’ve been making: First, taken literally, you are saying that you can’t use a ‘definition’ to argue against the same ‘definition’. Your point, as you presently present it, is not even about “the thing itself”, but instead its focus is the “definition” of the thing. Second, even if you set that aside, your point would then be about actual ‘rational argument’ (someone’s version of what that is) in a challenge against itself. Well, you and I probably have a different understanding and conception of what we would each mean by the present state of the art of “rational argument”. And third, of course, taken literally, your statement is “obvious by definition”, but not very meaningful and not, as I see it, relevant to the points I’m making in the original post or to the points, and examples, I’ve given here. In other words, to the degree that the only point you are making is the literal and obvious one — “you can’t use X to negate X within the context and confines of X” — and nothing more or nothing less, then of course I agree. How could I not? But this narrow and literal and obvious point has nothing to do with — it’s not an objection to — any of the points I’m making in the post or here, or to my examples. The very instant we would try to understand what you mean by it that you see as being relevant here, we would immediately have to define and compare, and contrast, what you see as the cutting edge version of “rational argument” with what I see as the cutting edge version, and my guess is that we either disagree on that or, if not, we’ll find that the point is not relevant to the points I’m making.

          (That said, I will offer this. Even the narrow and obvious aspect of the point you seem to making, if we take your statement literally, is only correct in a very narrow and specific sense. Because, if there is a system of “logic” or “rationality” being offered up, a use of that very system to show that it DOES eventually contradict itself is one of the best ways — historically and otherwise — to show that it is NOT really a coherent and sound system. So a system of logic (if it is, in truth, incoherent in some way, or unsound) can itself be “used” to demonstrate this, by showing that following it along two different paths ultimately leads to an internal contradiction. So, the point you are making, even in its obviousness, only applies to a system of rationality or logic that has somehow managed to accomplish some complete coherence and internal consistency.

          But even these are not the most important points, in our context here. The most important one (in our present context, in my view anyhow) also explains why I don’t think the present path of discussion will be worthwhile or fruitful. This sort of argument — about what’s true “by definition”, and about precise definitions of terms such as ‘rationality’, and about words — is reflective of the “competitive quest for so-called ‘Truth'”, and the sorts of competitions among philosophers to win arguments that quite often are meaningless or at least not very consequential, and does more to distract us from practicing and implementing wisdom. I’ll write a bit more about “insufficiently theorized agreements” and the aim of more cooperation among philosophers. No two philosophers, never mind ten, will ever agree completely on every aspect of so-called “Truth”, or even completely on a singular definition of ‘rationality’ or etc., but many will agree — for diverse reasons — that it would be nice, and make sense, for humankind to try to become sustainable. What very few philosophers seem able to do is to try to actualize the latter aim, and work hard and cooperatively towards it, even as they have slightly or moderately differing theories, or conceptions of truth. Philosophers would often prefer to argue competitively about this or that difference in theory or definition or logic, trying to win each other over, rather than to pause to save the drowning child in a lake, or on a larger scale to critique the flagrant false assumptions, faulty reasoning, and damaging paradigms that cause many of our most pressing problems.

          So this is a trap I think we should avoid. There are better — more genuinely valuable — things to do than to debate over statements that are “true by definition” but that aren’t directly relevant to the matters at hand and that, in any case, are probably only “meaningful” to the degree that we define them narrowly to have the meaning that we give them.

          All in fun. Be Well, Jeff .

  3. I think what you have written here is very significant, and I have made a copy of it for my files.
    I agree with almost all that you say in terms of how modern culture screens out what is most needed to reform itself in a sustainable, living, loving way. I have experienced the pain of being screened out myself in my efforts to introduce ‘natural inclusionality’ to a wider audience, and Nick himself has contributed to that screening out process. On the other hand, Lee Beaumont has appreciated the signinficance and validity of what I have been trying to contribute to human understanding – explicitly now for 14 years – and he has helped by developing a course on ‘Natural Inclusion’, which can be found at:

    Amongst the many things I have tried to bring to attention (and this is where I disagree with you in a way) is that the notion of ‘evolution by selection’ is itself one of the ‘bad ideas’, based on a false premise, that has sustained the iniquities of modern culture. That false premise is embedded in the definitive logical foundations of rationalism.

    • Thanks, Alan. Ooh, I’ve perused it, and now I’ll look forward to reading the ‘Natural Inclusion’ course. I’ll try to find some time over the weekend.

      There is an interesting tension, or (to a degree) counter-relationship, between the typical competition among philosophers in the quest for “truth” — because “truth” seems to imply a single precise thing — and the aim of bringing wisdom to life, which of course calls for a great deal of openness, inclusiveness, and cooperation. The latter aim (bringing wisdom to life) can easily include, and must include, so-called insufficiently theorized agreements; it can and must include cooperation; it can and must include people allowing each other to say the same things but in different ways, and to believe different things as long as those things enable and motivate healthy overlaps in how life is lived; and so forth. This is something that we philosophers should realize, I think. The competitive quest for singular “truth”, while still an important part of the aim of philosophy, is not the whole aim and is not the highest aim. It would be interesting to explore that topic on its own. Or, perhaps, this is one aspect of what you may mean by ‘Natural Inclusion’? I look forward to reading about it.

      Be Well,


      • Jeff,
        My favorite definition of “Truth” is “correspondence with reality.” If there is only one reality, then there is only one Truth. However, we too often mistake various models of reality for the real thing. You gave the example of the invisible hand as being mistaken for reality itself. Please notice the “tag line” in the Natural Inclusion course we developed. It is “Learning to experience the world from nature”. The work is to correctly align our models and our Truth with reality, not with simplistic or incomplete or inaccurate models of reality.

        The course introduces this point by saying: “Essentially, all models are wrong,” George Box noted, “but some are useful.” Since the systems of the natural world are intrinsically dynamic, rather than static, these systems are better described using dynamic rather than static models, using language that emphasizes movement and flow rather than artificially imposing some static snapshot of the system.

        Don’t mistake the map for the terrain.


        PS I am working on an essay that I hope can be significant that addresses (and I hope begins to build on) several of the points you make in your “screening” essay and Ronnie makes in her “superorganism” essay.

    • Hello again, Alan–

      i mentioned in an earlier post that some of what you’re saying reminds me of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and I’d like to ask if you clarify what you see as the “badness” of the idea of natural selection, with Nietzsche in mind. Nietzsche was critical of Darwin’s thesis too, on my interpretation at least because it imposed a quantificational, mechanistic paradigm upon the living world–“One must not mistake Malthus for nature,” and “Darwin forgot the mind” (_Twilight of the Idols_, 14). Moreover, by “plac[ing] ‘adaptation’ in the foreground, that is to say . . .a mere reactivity, . . . the essence of life, its _will to power_, is ignored; one overlooks the essential priority of the spontaneous, aggressive, expansive, form-giving forces that give new interpretations and directions, although ‘adaptation’ follows only after this (_On the Genealogy of Morals_, essay 2, section 12). Is this an aspect of your criticism too (as I would think, insofar as it misses the spontaneous activity you displayed in moving your hand back and forth to illustrate a point)?

      And, could you link the “false premise” you see in the logical foundations of rationalism (might you define “rationalism” here too, please? The term has a confusing history) to the exclusion of this inner, viral force of living organisms from our standard western conception? Or not–any further explanation of the problems you see with “rationalism” would be helpful.


      • Dear Ronnie,

        Thanks for your query. Being primarily a naturalist, I allow natural phenomena, and my experience of them, to speak for themselves rather than impose some abstract constraint upon them, or depend on some prior authority to dictate my understanding of them (I guess that makes my approach ‘phenomenological’). My primary concern, with regard to any conceptual representation or explication of a natural phenomenon is whether this is consistent with actual experience and whether it makes consistent (non-paradoxical) sense. Every modern concept that depends in one way or another on the supposition that matter can be devoid of space (and hence dimensionless) is hence unacceptable to me as representative of natural truth. That includes Darwinian selection and an awful lot else besides. There’s a lot more I could say here, and I’d be very happy to discuss it with you by e mail, but yes, there is at least some affinity with what Nietzsche had to say here (though I am no scholar or follower of Nietzsche). My most explicit commentary on the inadequacy of Darwinism and neo-Darwinism as explanations of biological evolution can be found in my paper ‘Space Cannot Be Cut : why self-identity naturally includes neighbourhood’.

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