Resistance is futile

Are you trekkies? No? In the Star Trek series, the Borg are notorious enemies of the Federation of United Planets. Somewhere far into the future, when we have settled all our inter-planet quarrels, they are the new external enemy. the Borg are a super efficient race that solves differences of opinion in a very special way: every new ‘member’ of the group is fully assimilated and can no longer think independently. The group and its survival is literally always more important to the Borg than the individual interest.

Over the past few weeks, I have increasingly argued that we, as human beings, are also secretly some kind of Borg. Our default solution to problems? Form a group and give them a common goal. I do it myself. I have been teaching cooperation for years. Neighbourhood teams, managers and professionals come to my classes and are taught how to work better with others. What I actually teach them is assimilation. Find a higher goal that you all agree on, be strong together against your external enemy and above all: don’t be too solitary, but feel part of the group. Group interest before everything, wrapped up as a motto that no one can ever be against: ‘Every child counts’ or ‘No youngster should be homeless’.

Actually, as a ‘cooperation expert’, I’m cheating pretty badly. After all, what is the most difficult thing about cooperation? Working together with people who do not agree with you. Working with people who have different goals, different interests. Who see the world differently than you see it. And with famous tricks from sociology and psychology I avoid these difficulties. Aren’t the interests equal? Look where they do overlap. Is someone’s interest at odds with yours? Find a mutually important contact with an intermediate interest and form a broader cooperation. All the tricks I teach are aimed at one simple principle in sociology: people are incredibly good at forming groups, and incredibly loyal to groups of which they are a part of.

This way of working together has worked quite well so far. It’s true
that you end up with people who have to be your enemies: those who don’t (yet) belong to the group. But that’s an acceptable cost in a fairly stable environment, where you can choose your enemies and your friends wisely. Where relationships are fairly constant and durable.

In 2019, however, we are well on our way to a network society: a society with ever broader, more volatile, changing collaborations. More and more often, we have to cooperate with ad hoc parties, with varying partners, in occasional cooperatives. It is no wonder that the members of the neighbourhood team that I train are increasingly frustrated with what I teach: once they have finally built up a good relationship with someone or something, their function or the working relationship will likely be changing again. Where are the stable relationships when you need them?

In this new constellation, we need new ways of working together. Ways that continue to work robustly, even when you don’t have a shared goal. Enabling cooperation between people with different points of view and interests. Which are not mainly based on the mechanisms of group formation. But they also do not rely on the mechanisms of economic negotiation alone: back to cards-on-the-chest, ‘I win so you lose’, zero-sum negotiations. Because that is all we seem to have at the moment when forming a group fails: distrust, a culture of negotiations and trying to win.

There’s gotta be something in between, right? Something between ‘we’re friends’ and ‘I’m a rat’? Something between marriage and a one night stand? A lat-relationship or something?

That’s what I’ve been looking for lately: what are the mechanisms of collaboration in a network society? How do we arrive at an honest and open discussion about interests and points of view, without having to agree? How do we get past the polarisation that we are currently seeing in, for example, the climate debate? How do we tackle the major dilemmas of our time, for which we really need each other, but for which we also know that we will never be able to agree?

I don’t have a definite answer yet, but I think we should build that answer together. I already have a start: gentleness and doubt. Words that are currently classified as ‘soft’ and ‘naive’, but I don’t think they are. Rather ‘powerful’ and ‘solving’.

Doubt is so incredibly important when working together in a network society. If we have more doubts about the correctness of our own views, if we leave a little more room in our heads for other points of view, we give ourselves the space to look for solutions in a more flexible way. And what about that mildness? I don’t mean it only in the sense that we should be mild in regard to the opinion of others. As essential as it is to be milder towards others, mildness begins with yourself: allow yourself to be unsure. To not always be right. To not always see it right. We are not perfect, which is normal and logical. The sooner we can accept that, the sooner we can start practicing working together in a durable way.

Everything changes, everything stays the same

There is a list of topics from my research waiting to be described in this blog. About theories and trainings, about beautiful encounters and brilliant plans. But in the context of spring, I will stay personal for a while longer. Because spring makes it so clear that everything changes. And at the same time, everything always remains the same.

Yesterday I went to Black Memories by AYA dance company. A crazy performance, beautiful dancing and a very solid and beautiful theme: history and the present from the perspective of black people. It was abrasive and raw, visitors left the room during the unparalleled depiction of slavery time (beautiful visual dance, very clear texts, it was palpable in your capillaries). The audience – predominantly white – felt addressed, uncomfortable and at the same time involved.

Black Memories, by Aya dance company

At the end of the performance and during the discussion, the theme ‘why do we still have to do this’ was very clearly set out. Why is white privilege still so omnipresent in our society? Why is it still difficult to say that ‘black pete’ is no longer possible? Why is a black youngster still being watched in a supermarket ‘in case he steals something’? Why is that? Why?

I thought it was a beautiful and true performance, but especially in the follow-up interview I found it difficult. Because I keep finding it so hard to see how we get out of this. Everything changes, but everything remains the same. The Dutch discriminate – but I don’t. Of course ‘black pete’ can’t remain the same anymore – but I can’t tell that to my tennis friends with small children. The deeper issue is often left unspoken in the conversation: how can I see what I don’t see? Because as a white and wealthy woman I have so many advantages in this life, I don’t see them. They are ‘water’ to me (this comparison is taken from a very beautiful movie I’m posting below, just because it belongs to this blog).

How can we help each other to feel each other’s perspective? How can we achieve change together? How do we talk about the fact that it will really cost us something, hurt us, to make this change happen? I don’t know, I just see that even on such an evening, in a room with people who have bought a ticket to experience this, it’s hard to really see each other’s reality. In the foyer afterwards, I heard two older people say to each other: ‘Yes, I don’t know, but I really don’t think that I would feel discriminated against if I was black’. And later in the same conversation: ‘I don’t really understand why they always want to link ‘black pete’ to race. He’s black because he’s coming through the chimney, isn’t he?’.

Bearing in mind my own motto, to find the perspective of the other person and from there try to create space for my own perspective, I went to the people who were saying these things. Not to lecture them, but because I was really curious why they came to the show. And because I wanted to feel what they had taken with them from seeing the show. And of course, because I also wanted to try to make my perspective visible to them. Did I succeed? I hope so. It was nice to see how openings were created and reflections were created. Also between the two people themselves. Especially when we were talking about the shoplifting suspicion. At first they told me it wasn’t discrimination, because a small group really ruined it for them (quote: young Turks and Moroccans do steal, and ruin it for the group). But when I asked if that wasn’t the case for us as well: wasn’t there also a small group of white people who steal and so should ruin it for us?) I saw some confusion arise. Maybe wishful thinking from me, but it was beautiful.

At the same time, a day later in my office, it also remains evident how these people always tried to narrow the discussion down to the point: I don’t discriminate myself. They both sincerely believed that, and I also felt their intention to look beyond the skin colour in everyone’s eyes. Good. But at the same time it was a protection, an externalisation: I do not discriminate, so for me nothing has to change. The discussion was thus set aside as academic, outside their own lives. As a result, there is a life-threatening risk that in twenty years’ time we will still need these kinds of performances. Everything changes, but will everything remain the same?

The Time traveler

Disclaimer: This blog has nothing at all to do with my research into changing my mind. This is a very personal blog, which is about me. And about changing time and the universe.

I really like science fiction and fantasy stories. Time travelers like Doctor Who, the Ender series by Orson Scott Card: stories about other worlds, about time and space travel, about unlimited adventures and possibilities. The most beautiful fantasy world I know.

Teylers museum in Haarlem

But is it really a fantasy world? When I recently took the Lorentz formula at Teyler’s museum, a theatrical tour of Lorentz’s laboratory, I began to doubt it. The tour begins with an explanation of the relativity of time. Time, according to Einstein, is not a constant given. Under the influence of gravity, for example, time can shrink or expand. Years can fly by in a matter of seconds, while minutes can go by as slowly as if they were days. This is true in physics, the actors say, and also in stories. But is this also the case in daily life? Can gravity influence time in such a way that an individual travels through time? I think so. I will explain.

Fifteen years ago, the four days we are experiencing today – 29 April to 2 May – were four of the most bizarre days of my life. They enfold a schism, a rift in my life. April 29 and 30, 2004 are among the last two days that I have lived in a parallel universe, I call this universe ‘World 0’. In World 0 there was nothing special, everything was as it should be. The grass was green, time passed and I was expecting our first child. I lived my life, worked in my garden and celebrated the Queen’s birthday.

May 1, 2004 was the start of ‘World 1’. The world I have been living in since 2004, which looks so much like my original world, but is so clearly different on important points. That morning I didn’t feel my baby move anymore. In the hospital it was confirmed that he had died. A day later, Sunday 2 May, he was born: 57 centimetres, 3900 grams and beautiful. But without heartbeat.

These four days are now fifteen years ago. And yet: every year they ‘come back to me’. The days of that time seem to be bleeding through the days of today. I carry garden plants again. I walk around the flea market on the Queens birthday. For the first time, I am holding my son in my arms. The events of years ago pass with absolute precision, as you can expect from time. While the time between those four days then and these four days now melts away, these four days of 15 years ago remain the same size and presence even today. I am here and there at the same time these days. I am a time traveller.

And that is actually quite normal. Because time bends under the influence of gravity, right? And there are no days with a greater heaviness in my life, with a deeper and more intense weight, than those four days. Days that have given me the most intense experiences of my life – both terrible and beautiful. Days that have shaped not only me, but my whole world. Is it strange, then, that time bends in the face of these days? It seems perfectly logical to me.

Mildness in moderation

This week a I am writing a personal blog. I fear that my research does not only yield new scientific and political insights. It might also change my character.

I will explain. The other day I was on the train in a silence compartment. You can guess what happened: a group of cheerful students came in, sat down and started their loud and happy conversation. I would have been very annoyed by this in the past and would have gotten up quite quickly to say something about it. But the annoyance came up this time and almost as quickly is ebbed away again. I thought they must have had a very good reason to be so happy. I decided to enjoy their cheerfulness for the next twenty minutes and went on with my day.

Strange, isn’t it? And I’m not writing this down to give myself Gandhi-like compassion. I was just a bit surprised and worried. Because they weren’t quiet, and they should have been. And I wanted to meditate, and that was more difficult with their chatter than without it. And yet, all I could do was shrug my shoulders and smile.

Another example: I recently participated in a psychological test. You know, on of those internet tests. This time not from a company that wants to sell you something on the sly, but from a university that researched moral boundaries.

I liked that, so I joined in. And they asked me questions like: you see an employee of a funeral home eating pizza. The pizza is on the body of a dead person. What do you think of this? (By the way, another one was: you see a woman wearing a very big hat. She walks into a building and doesn’t take off her hat. What do you think of this?).

To my husband’s dismay (and horror) I couldn’t get annoyed by any of this. Eating a pizza from a corpse. Yes, I wouldn’t do it myself. But did I find it morally reprehensible? Hmmm, I didn’t really think so (you can see it in front of you, my husband behind me watching the screen and pulling hairs from his head).

It wasn’t that I didn’t find anything morally reprehensible anymore by the way: hurting people or animals, I still react to that fairly primary and emotionally clear to that. I don’t think that’s permissible, even if you’ve just heard that your wife is seriously ill (Yes really, that was also a case submitted). But if it doesn’t really hurt or harm anyone, then I honestly don’t care much.

At least: on paper. I guess that when I go to the funeral home to give one last greeting to a loved one, and I see a member of staff eating pizza from his or her chest, I will get furious. But is it because I find it morally reprehensible? Or because it is MY dearly deceased, and that member of staff has to go and eat from his own dearly deceased? These kinds of constantly irritating questions in my head keep me from forming judgment more and more often.

And that’s pretty crazy, for someone who used to have an opinion about everything. To be honest, I don’t know yet if I like it either. It all feels very ‘moderate’. Not really a term I like. And what if I slide all the way down? If I become a nihilist? Never mind anything anymore, or like it? Because that danger lies, of course, in my moderation. So I implore you: will you warn me, when you catch me in a state of a complete lack of opinion?

Power to the people

Last month in America last month there was a scandal about how unfair the selection at the prestigious universities is sometimes: famous and rich people who bought buildings for the university, after which the child was admitted. These scandals not only show the extent to which wealth corrupts, they also send a signal to people who are unable to buy a place at a university: there are different rules for people who are rich and powerful.

And that is a problem. Not only because of corruption, by the way. This article in the New York Times explains very clearly why the selection process of the prestigious universities is already a problem even without corruption. To enter such a university, a student must meet so many requirements that often a large part of the school time and energy is used for ‘curriculum building’. Students and their parents work for years on activities, grades and CVs that lead to a greater chance of acceptance. It goes without saying that here again, especially the wealthier people have greater opportunities to actually be able to carry out all these activities. But an even bigger problem is perhaps the gigantic narrowing of the field of vision of these students. Their self-worth, personal development and their childhood entirely in the service of a good university.

Coats of arms of eight of the most prestigious ‘Ivy League’ Universities in America

In the Netherlands, we do not have such selection processes. Although; my neighbour boy was admitted to a student association this year and I can’t say this admittance was due to a reasonable and well-considered selection process… Here too we seem to place a lot of value on belonging to a select group of people And here too it constricts our view of what a successful study and working life is.

In the Netherlands we also are keenly aware that different rules apply to rich and powerful people. Take the dissatisfaction with the climate agreement, where companies (which clearly use more energy than households, see infographic below) seemed to be excluded from the measures. The discontent in the country was strongly felt, and also visible in the latest election results (where I do not want to state that the election results are a direct result of the climate agreement, there is of course much more happening that affects election results).

Infographic is in Dutch I am afraid. On the right you see households use 17% of al energy, industry uses 46%.

In a book I recently read, ‘Hillbilly Elegy‘ by J.D. Vance, it is described beautifully what is so bad about the image that there are different rules for rich and powerful inhabitants. The problem is not so much that they – the rich and powerful – get their way easier and more often. The problem is much more that the non-rich and not powerful get the feeling that it doesn’t matter what they do or decide. A system in which it is easier for one group to move forward also means that there is a group for which this is much more difficult. For that group, their own commitment and making smart choices is disconnected from success. And once that has been disconnected, why should you still commit yourself?

Learned helplessness, they do call it. Nice term, but a less beautiful phenomenon. Because if you no longer think that your behaviour matters, then the world becomes a very desolate and hostile place. If you feel that you are no longer the owner of your own destiny, you can feel enormously powerless. In Hillbilly Elegy Vance describes the consequences of this powerlessness: lethargy, externalisation of one’s own bad situation (it is always someone else’s fault) and above all, far fewer opportunities and possibilities. A vicious circle of powerlessness leading to a negative spiral of life chances.

In that light, I am extremely happy with the results of the last elections in the Netherlands. Because never before have so many people voted in provincial elections. People who take their fate into their own hands, who don’t feel so powerless that they think it doesn’t matter anymore. They want change and take action for it themselves. My hope is that these people will feel taken seriously in the coming period by their elected representatives. So that they notice that they are indeed not powerless, and that their decisions are absolutely influential.

And is it then too much to ask to hope that we have now also finished making each other small and blaming each other? That we see this election result as the last push in the right direction to really listen to each other and take each other seriously? Everybody – from liberal to conservative, from woman to foreigner – deserves this respect.

Inside out: emotions are the true heroes

Up to now I have mainly represented emotions as irritating and illogical instincts that we should suppress. Logical reasoning as a basis for a better society. For trekkies and other nerds among us: live like Spock, then everything will be fine.

Spock and Data, two characters from the TV-series ‘Star Trek’

But is that the case? In addition to Spock, Star Trek also has a character called Data, the robot that continued to search for feelings and emotions throughout the series. And I never counted it, but I think that the episodes in which Spock’s logical reasoning completely misses the point, are as frequent as the episodes in which Spock and his logic saves the day. Emotions are twisted and difficult, that’s for sure, but logic alone only gets us so far. And, perhaps even more important: only having logic would make the world a much more boring place.

Scientists have long been studying in the role of emotions. A famous name in this field of science is Phineas Gage. Not because he is a famous scientist, but because he worked in America in the 19th century on the construction of the railways, and in an accident he got an iron bar through his head. Miraculously enough, he lost sight of his left eye, but seemed otherwise to recover completely: he could still reason, talk and walk.

An original photo of Phineas Gage, holding an iron rod

But: he had changed. He was angrier, cursed more, was much less socially adjusted. His character was affected by the accident. Over the centuries, scientists have been trying to make sense of the implications of Gage’s behavioral change. Because so little concrete data is known about Gage and the damage, he is seen as the ‘Rorschach spot’ of early brain research: on the basis of the descriptions of his behavior almost every brain theory could and can be explained. You could reason that is near full recovery implied that the brain functions as a whole, and parts can compensate for other parts. But, Cage’s changed personality could also convince you that the frontal part of the brain (where the stake had caused all the damage) is where the social behavior and emotions are regulated.

An inkblot from the (in)famous Rorschach test

Even with all the duplicity and guesswork, Gage has been of great influence on brain research. Two centuries after his death, for example, his life inspired Joshua Greene to investigate the influence of different brain reactions on moral issues. Do you remember the Trolley problem? One of the most famous fictional questions in philosophy. Follow the link for all information if you need, but in short the trolley problem comes down to this: to what extent and under what circumstances is it allowed to harm a small number of people, to prevent damage to more people?

Would you change tracks? Would you push the fat person of the bridge?

Joshua Greene started to present the various Trolley problems to people with and without brain disorders. People who have a brain disorder that has an effect on your emotional judgments, appear to agree much more often to sacrifice a small group of people, to save a larger group, than people with normal brain function. It goes too far to explain the science completely here, but in short, according to Greene we have methods in our brains to make decisions very quickly (emotions) and to make slower logical decisions (ratio).

To prevent us from pushing people off a bridge whenever our rational consideration is that the benefits outweigh the costs, we need emotions. And not only because our emotions are the ‘protectors’ of a number of essential agreements that make it possible for us to live together (murder is bad, sharing is good). Also simply because it takes too much time to rely solely on your rational brain in every decision. Try to make a full assessment of your best response if a traffic jam suddenly forms in front of you on the motorway: you won’t succeed in time. Your shock reaction is the only way to get your body to do something fast enough. Without our emotions, we would be a danger in traffic.

Emotions, according to Greene, are unique and very valuable ‘warning lights’ in our brains. We should not set them aside as nonsensical irrational feelings, we should take them very seriously. Without our emotions we wouldn’t be able to make good decisions and as a society we would have a lot more trouble. Love, group identity, solidarity and empathy: these are essential parts of a fully-fledged society.

To be or not to be

It was the first piece of prose I really learned by heart. Because of the beautiful words, whose meaning was lost to me. It just sounded so terribly beautiful:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them.

Hamlet is in doubt here. Should he live on, or commit suicide? He doubts very rationally: in a long monologue, he systematically weighs the pros and cons of death. I love Hamlet. I love his doubt, his willingness (whether or not of his own free will) to always look at things from several angles. Am I avenging my father, who wasn’t a kind man either? Is murder a good answer to murder? This doubt makes Hamlet a special ‘hero’. He is not (well, sometimes he is but usually not) a man of impulsive action. He’s not a superhero, he’s just a prince who doesn’t know what to do.

The contrast between reason and emotion, between ‘impulsive action’ and ‘quiet contemplation’ indicates how we think about emotions and reason. Our emotions add colour to life. Early philosophers like John Stuart Mill stated that pleasure is our highest attainable good. Maximizing pleasure is, according to Mill, a good basic rule for setting up a society. Since Mill we have gone of this rule a bit: the whole Enlightenment can be seen as an attempt by philosophers and scientists to impose reason and thinking as the foundations of society. As Descartes says: Cogita ergo Sum: I think therefore I exist.

The contest between emotion and reason is far from settled these days. Certainly not now that neurologists and psychologists like Joshua Greene and Jonathan Haidt are increasingly questioning the distinction between emotion and reason. Emotion can be seen as another form of thinking (see also previous blog). The difference between emotion and reason is not – they say – in the place in your body where it is made, but in the speed with which it works and the energy it costs to produce. Emotion is fast and cheap, thinking is slow and expensive. Emotions are our automated thinking patterns. They are thinking, just as much as reason is. But they are automatic, fast and therefore inflexible. And for that reason the should keep away from our emotional reactions, some people say. After all: they are not controllable! I feel before I know I feel.

How to deal with such fast and inflexible patterns in our heads? According to Joshua Greene (Moral tribes), we have to go beyond the automatic setting if we want to bridge the problems of today’s society. We must see and use our emotions, but not sail blindly on them. We must disrupt our automatic setting. We must challenge and question our own built-in patterns. We can’t do that ourselves, because our emotions get in our way. But happily for us, we are not alone. So they call for a ‘community roast’: we must move towards a society in which we criticize each other’s ideas. Because while we may not be good at recognizing ‘the beam in our own eye’, we are all perfectly capable of seeing and naming ‘the splinter in the eye of the other’.

I have to say, I honestly don’t know yet. I have enjoyed reading the book by Greene and am delighted that he doesn’t just provide an analysis of how difficult it is, but also presents an action plan to make it better. But at the same time: how do I ‘roast’ my deepest convictions? How do I find a safe space, especially within myself, to question my truth? Who can do that? Who can’t? Before I offer up my deepest convictions for dissecting, I still have a long way to go.

An example to make this clear. I am against the death penalty. I feel strongly about this point of view, this conviction. I can tell you a very rational story about why I have the point of view. Something with type 1 and type 2 errors and so on. It is a beautiful, scientifically sounding and rational story. Unfortunately it is also total nonsense. Because even if you could overturn all my arguments in a good conversation, I would say to you: I still think killing another person is just wrong. This is an emotional reaction, an automatic resistance in my body to harming others. Even if I know that this automatic setting tries to keep me away from a reasonable conversation on the subject of capital punishment, that doesn’t help: my body is locked into the emotion ‘this is wrong’.

According to Greene, there are methods to overcome this emotional reaction. Facts, science, curiosity and the acceptance of doubt are important. I hope he is right. At the same time I doubt if it is true (or at least my emotions do this doubting). And for that reason next week I’m going to try to argue why we shouldn’t try to overrule our emotions at all, because they are our best advisor 🙂

A sentimental journey

Well, you definitely wear your heart on your sleeve.I often hear this remark. They don’t say the words ‘too much’ out loud, but most of the times they think them.

Showing emotions is often seen as a weakness. Especially in a professional setting. At the same time, you can defend the proposition that ‘being happy’ is one of the overarching human ambitions. Everyone wants to lead a happy life. How is it possible that we look down on emotions in this way on the one hand, while on the other hand we devote a large part of our lives to pursuing them?

In my upcoming blog I want to answer three questions that are related to this:

  1. What are emotions?
  2. Are emotions worse than reason? Or is it the other way around?
  3. How do we make emotion and reason work well together?

Today we will stick with the first question: what are emotions? Because although everyone intuitively ‘knows’ what the word means (haha), it is not so easy to define what an emotion is. Some say emotions come from your heart, or from your lower abdomen. Others say (cynically or not) that all our behaviour, including our emotions, is controlled by our brains. Emotions are actually the same as reason, but on automatic pilot.

Yet that’s not the whole answer, because the autopilot in my head keeps me breathing. And that I swallow, blink and all continue to perform other automatic functions. Invisible, imperceptible, but also – that’s how we notice when something doesn’t work anymore – indispensable. But however indispensable, those automatic functions of our head are not emotions, while we can say that emotions are automatic functions of our head. What makes emotions special and different?

The best definition (according to Joshua Green in the book Moral Tribes) is: emotions are automatic functions that spur us into action. Sounds still very clinical and doesn’t sound ’emotional’ much, doesn’t it? But if you chew on it for a while, it seems to kinda work. Take fear, for example. An emotion that immediately calls for a ‘flight or freeze’ action. Or love. Or anger. All automatic functions of our brain, and they all call to action to a some extent.

The combination of automatic function and action becomes clearly visible when you see how our body reacts to a number of emotions. See this still from the course ‘Empathy and Emotional Intelligence at Work‘ by BerkleyX (via EdX).

Emotions are automatic functions of our brains that evoke action. But why? Why do we have them? Do they have a purpose? Or at least did they have a clear purpose when we came up with them? According to Joshua Greene, the creator of the mentioned definition, emotions have a very clear purpose: they facilitate the transition from ‘me’ to ‘us’. As a species, humans are unique in their capacity to work together. As a species, we can come across the ‘tragedy of the commons’ – a classic sociological dilemma. Other species can’t do this, or at least can’t do this as good as we can.

So what is the ‘tragedy of the commons’, and how do emotions help? The tragedy is a classic collaboration case: in a village there is a large meadow. Cows can be kept there. Every inhabitant can let his or her cows graze there, the meadow is a commonly owned piece of land. How does the village ensure that the field is not too full with cows and all the grass gets eaten?

This case is an important basis for many collaboration theories. The role of emotions in all these theories, according to Greene, is that emotions are a very quick way to execute the rules of the collaboration theories. Think of fear or anger when you see a stranger letting his cow eat on your territory. Think of the affection you build as a community, which makes you more likely not to secretly keep too many cows on the pasture as an individual. Emotions are very quick and effective ways to make a group work together.

What is difficult about these emotions is that to do that they have a preference for ‘us’. That is, we read emotions much more easily from people who look like us than from people who don’t look like us. even worse, our ‘alert’ emotions (suspicion, distrust) are triggered more quickly by people with characteristics that visibly distinguish them from the group we belong to. Think of people with an opponent’s football outfit. Or think of how alert you are when you meet someone in the street at night who you do not recognize, opposite how you feel when you meet a n neighbor. These reactions, these emotions, are instinctive and automatic. To create a ‘us’, to make people feel like they are part of a group, our emotions needed a ‘them’. A counterparty. An antagonist.

The question is what the implication is of this somewhat overlong definition of emotions. Are emotions our salvation or our downfall? Are they what makes us good collaborators or distrustful racists? Should we suppress our emotions in favor of our ratio? Or should we embrace our instincts?

Next blog, I will go into these follow-up questions in more detail.

Being right all the time.

In my research I have collected piles of books. Partly on my e-reader, but I found out that I liked it better to devour paper books. And so there are piles of ‘real’ books on my desk. Some already read, some still waiting to be (re)read.

One of those books was a book with the beautiful title ‘How to make good decisions and be right all the time‘. This book was ‘set to be read’ last week – I try to get at least one book a week from the left ‘still to read’ stack to the right ‘already studied’ stack. I was looking forward to reading it, because, especially considering my blog on morality last week, I’m pretty much looking for the shades of grey and clarity around this subject. Morality fascinates me enormously.

I expected the title to be ironic. After all, everything I had read so far had strengthened me in the opinion I expressed in my blog last week: morality is full of shades of grey and it is quite difficult to find a certain viewpoint that is ‘better’ than the other viewpoint when there are moral differences of opinion. Always being right therefore, as the book promised, seemed to me to be a utopia (also a beautiful book by the way, I should add it to the ‘still to be (re)read’ pile).

Map of Tomas More’s imaginary land ‘Utopia’.

Funny enough, reading the book it got clear to me very quickly that the author does NOT mean it ironically. He is actually looking for ‘true morality’. As the writer Iain King argues, in physics with Newton’s revolution (you know, the apple that fell on his head) we have found a certainty that is enticing. Since Newton we know the laws of gravity, of time and space (yes I know, my science heart already went into resistance here and I kept calling ‘what about Einstein?’ to the book). And that gives us certainty.

Philosophy, and certainly moral philosophy, needed such a Newtonian revolution, King states. To make this clear, he starts the book with three rather classical moral dilemmas. I will describe one here:
Sven lives in a dictatorship. It is a cruel regime that is kept alive by the notoriously ruthless police. He is offered a job with this police force. Sven hates the regime, but he knows that if he doesn’t take the job, Erik will get the job. Erik is a person who enjoys doing nasty things. Should Sven take the job and help to keep the cruel regime alive? Or should he let Erik take the job, knowing that Erik will work very hard for this police and that Erik will make the police even more ruthless?

To establish that there is a correct answer to this dilemma, King spends 230 pages on systematically positing and ‘proving’ a universal moral theory. I put the word proving between quotation marks, because yes, I was not convinced. When King uses Sherlock Holmes to prove moral theories, I become a bit uncomfortable (‘it’s an imaginary person King!’). If the author ‘proves’ that the purpose of life is to generate value, by stating that the argumentation does not take into account the possibility that life has no (or no clearly formulated) purpose at all, but that in that case the whole reasoning is meaningless, so that that part may just as well be left out of consideration, I become desperate. The book is full of circular reasoning, post hoc propter hoc theorems and more nonsensical maxims. With King, ‘Proof’ becomes more like ‘throwing theses at people until they are numb’. I was not convinced (as you notice).

Anyway, I thought to myself: do you know, no matter how he comes up with it, maybe I’m too strict. Maybe I read it as a scientific book from which all notes and references have accidentally disappeared. Maybe I should read it more like a practical self-help book. Let’s see what he comes up with, maybe I can still use his guidelines on how to make good decisions.

King ends with 20 guidelines for making good decisions. In itself, most of them don’t even sound that bad. For example: ‘Have empathy, and be faithful to your obligations’, or ‘Help others with humility and be grateful for the help you get’. All fairly standard moral texts, which you also encounter historically in self-help books and religious texts. Some others, however, make me slightly uneasy: ‘Communicate in such a way that people act in a way that is optimal for the real circumstances’ for example. Or ‘Let people choose for themselves, unless you know their interests better than themselves’.

But the ‘proof of the pudding’ comes when we are back at Sven. Because King ultimately has an answer for this man in this rather dramatic dilemma. Now we know,’ writes King, ‘that Sven SHOULD take the job. It would be selfish vanity to refuse to dirty his hands. And while he does something only to prevent other people from doing even worse things, he must keep his bigger goal in mind: to overthrow the cruel regime’.

King continues with an even more astonishing sentence than previous advice: “What is special about this advice is that it is more than advice. This is the Right Answer (capital letters by the writer). It is not a matter of opinion, it is the truth.

Wow…. When I read this, I fell silent for a moment. I entertained the idea to throw the book out of the window. And then I realized: this book is for me the best proof of the necessity of my research. People who don’t look for doubt, for not knowing, end up always (or at least very often) falling into this kind of trap. A reasoning that seems logical at the beginning, if you follow it rigidly and monomaniacally, almost always leads to a nonsensical, excessive or at least questionable outcome. There is no truth. In spite of capital letters…

This book stays on my pile. Probably at a place of honour. Because for me it marks an important point in my research. Yesterday – I had just finished the book – I had my first consultation with a colleague to convert everything we know about doubt, changing our opinion, not knowing, moral truths and the influence of your emotional elephant, into training. A training in being ‘comfortable not knowing’. A training in the fact that ‘interdisciplinary working requires interdisciplinary looking’. A dialogue training for secondary schools, replacing the current debate training. And we have at least 10 other ideas.

Incidentally, yesterday we promised ourselves that if someone does not agree with our ideas for training, or wants to change our mind in any way, we should always take the space to say: Oh really? How interesting! Tell us your idea! Not knowing is in the end mostly practise what you preach. Building a training that is based on that starting point, may be a challenge 😉 But that’s what we are aiming for!

Truth and Righteousness enter a bar, part 2

Last week (ok, that’s not true, it’s more than two weeks ago, I dreaded writing this blog and procrastinated) I told you all about the slippery of the truth. Truth is not so true at all. Truth is a status we give to things that have seeped through a complex system of perceptions, heuristics and prejudices. Despite that system, truth is so important to us that go to war for it. With guns, on the highway or on social media.

What we also want to wage wars for, perhaps even more so than truth, is about righteousness. Moral considerations are absolute: stealing is bad, saving someone from drowning is good. Despite the tricks philosophers try to play with us (just look at the trolley problem), we never – or almost never – doubt our moral consideration. Righteousness… just is?

Unfortunately, righteousness faces the same problems as truth: we are just steering our elephant again. Our first instinctive reaction comes from our heuristics, our emotions, our instinct. For example, as an anti-authoritarian person, I have an instinctive positive reaction to actions that fight for a better climate. Even if my 13 year old son wants to play truancy and travel to The Hague with classmates to demonstrate, I automatically react positively. Only to find out too late that I really have a problem with the fact that my child is traveling alone in a full train to The Hague and demonstrating in a big crowd of people I don’t know. Not to mention the truancy…

The reason I have approved all of this is that I find it very important, from an educational point of view, that my son learns to deal with these matters. That he stands up for his opinion. That he weighs up the value of respecting the rules and customs on the one hand, again the value of standing up for something that is so important that it can’t be done according to the rules. At least, that is what I am telling myself. My elephants rider is teaming with integrity, good sense of purpose and rational thoughts. Unfortunately they are all fabrications of my head, and have nothing to do with the reason I said ‘of course you can go and demonstrate’. My elephant went left at the moment he heard ‘it’s for a better climate’ and my rider couldn’t do much else but go along and invent a story.

How would I have reacted if my son had wanted to demonstrate for a stricter immigration policy? Or for more flexible rules around the age limit for games and films? Would I have said just as naturally: yes, it is important to learn how that works, demonstrate? Or would I have reacted differently?

Accuracy and truth, all in all, they are unreliable beacons to organise your life. They absolutely direct my actions, but the question is to what extent I should let that happen. Because if they are actually elephants who instinctively react, why is my truth and correctness better than that of another person?

Jonathan Haidt describes in his book ‘the righteous mind’ that all morality consists of the same six ingredients. I have mentioned this before. The degree to which we consider the ingredients important varies between groups. But according to Haidt’s description, there is less light between all our different versions of Righteousness than we think.

If this is so, if this description is correct, then who can appeal to moral superiority? Whose compass is then the most pure? I started my research more than six months ago with the proposition that we all think we are Frodo, but that according to the rules of the story at least half of us were actually orcs. But is that so? How many really bad people do I know? Are our moralities really so different, so easy to score on a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ yardstick?

While I’m writing the previous paragraph, I’m getting restless. Because despite the fact that I believe in the description of Haidt, despite the fact that I see much wisdom in a description of morality as a general shared concept with different priorities between groups, it is difficult to unite my lower abdomen with the consequences. Because morality touches me, on a deep level.

Another example to illustrate this. Again about my son (sorry! Especially for him…). He was once small, three or four years old, when we had this conversation:
Son: ‘Mommy, I know what I want to become when I grow up!
Me: ‘What is that dear?
Son: ‘Well you know, first I wanted to become a firefighter’.
Me: ‘Yes, I remember’.
Son: ‘But you know, that’s a lot of work. So now I think I’ll become a pyromaniac’.
Me: …..

There are many mysteries in this short exchange. For example: how on earth does he get the word pyromaniac? (it featured in an song from the thema park the Efteling.) But at the moment itself my overwhelming feeling was one of powerlessness and a some despair. He was – and is – a clever child. His reasoning that lighting a fire is less work than putting it out, was difficult to undermine. But at the same time I saw in my minds eye where this could lead if he continued to develop his cleverness without ‘moral guidelines’. Or at least without moral guidelines that I thought were good enough.

So for me a very important and difficult question is: How far does moral pluralism go? In the end, can we justify everything? I can start the argumentation, but I already know that I don’t like where it ends. There is – I have – a need for an objective or at least shared ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. I must continue to believe not only in the Frodo’s, but also in the Orks. Not so much because it is true, because they are really there, but because it is necessary to structure my life. To make the group, society, work.

The question is: do we make the differences between our moralities, between our versions of Righteousness, greater than they are? Because that is functional for our society? Because it controls us better as a group, keeps us more together, binds us? And if so: how bad is that? Is it inescapable? Or does it amount to a sliding scale to a tribal world in which the other always has to remain the enemy?

I don’t know. I still think hard on this one. What I do know, is that the fact that Righteousness is less absolute than I thought, touches me even more deeply than the fact that Truth has fallen from its pedestal. Somehow – maybe my scientific background? – I can quite easily accept that Truth is grey. But Righteousness? I’m still working on that…..