Citizen Action Monitor

“I predict that during the next decades, we will increasingly experience ourselves as failing beings.”

“We will experience ourselves as beings who collectively and stubbornly act against better knowledge” – Thomas Metzinger.

No 2107 Posted by fw, November 26, 2017

Thomas Metzinger

“In the external world, climate change poses a new and historically unique threat to humanity as a whole. As I write these words, this objective danger is barely perceptible. But today we already know for certain that even in a best-case scenario, it will last for several centuries. Conceived of as an intellectual challenge for humankind, the increasing threat arising from self-induced global warming clearly seems to exceed the present cognitive and emotional abilities of our species. This is the first truly global crisis, experienced by all human beings at the same time in a single media-space, and as we watch it unfold, it will also gradually change our image of ourselves, the conception humankind has of itself as a whole. … I predict that during the next decades, we will increasingly experience ourselves as failing beings. We will experience ourselves as beings who collectively and stubbornly act against better knowledge, who even under great time-pressure are unable, for psychological reasons, to act jointly and efficiently and to put the necessary formation of political will into effect.”Thomas Metzinger, German Philosopher

Thomas Metzinger (dob March 12, 1958) is a German philosopher and professor of theoretical philosophy at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz.

If you enjoy an intellectual challenge, then you’re going to love this 50-minute video presentation by Thomas Metzinger. And if you prefer your challenge in print form, you’re in luck — that’s available too.

Fortunately, Metzinger made the text of his relaxed video talk available in a 36-page document under the same title. It is available for free download by clicking on the title: Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty: An Essay.

The complete 50-minute video is embedded below. It is important to note that the video is primarily an abridged PowerPoint, bulleted talk of the text of Metzinger’s 36-page essay. The section, “Intellectual Honesty” begins about the 9:39-minute mark and ends at about the 19:58-minute mark.

Because his full printed essay is long and demanding, I have opted to present it in selected sections in separate posts. Today’s post includes his opening “Preliminary Remarks” and the section “Intellectual Honesty.” (Although the endnote numbers appear in the text, the endnotes themselves are not included in this post).

As an aside, Metzinger would say that Trump is a “fideist” — and that ain’t a compliment.

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Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty with Thomas Metzinger, Published on You Tube by the Krishnamurti Foundation of America, July 19, 2017 — A talk by Thomas Metzinger at the May Gathering 2017 – Krishnamurti Foundation of America, Ojai, CA

SELECTIONS FROM THE ESSAYSpirituality and Intellectual Honesty: An Essay by Thomas Metzinger, Self-published, July 2017

Preliminary remarks

Is a “secularized spirituality” possible?

We are currently undergoing the beginnings of a historical period of transition that will have a deep impact on our image of ourselves, and on many different levels at the same time. This accelerating development presents us with a profound challenge. A question of central importance is whether a “secularized spirituality” is possible (or even conceivable). Could a modern and spiritual self-conception do justice to this historical change in our image of ourselves and the desire (not just important to professional philosophers) for intellectual honesty at the same time?

As an intellectual challenge, global warming seems beyond human capabilities

In the external world, climate change poses a new and historically unique threat to humanity as a whole. As I write these words, this objective danger is barely perceptible. But today we already know for certain that even in a best-case scenario, it will last for several centuries. Conceived of as an intellectual challenge for humankind, the increasing threat arising from self-induced global warming clearly seems to exceed the present cognitive and emotional abilities of our species. This is the first truly global crisis, experienced by all human beings at the same time in a single media-space, and as we watch it unfold, it will also gradually change our image of ourselves, the conception humankind has of itself as a whole.

In the coming decades, we will increasingly experience ourselves as failures

I predict that during the next decades, we will increasingly experience ourselves as failing beings. We will experience ourselves as beings who collectively and stubbornly act against better knowledge, who even under great time-pressure are unable, for psychological reasons, to act jointly and efficiently and to put the necessary formation of political will into effect. The collective self-image of the species Homo sapiens will increasingly be one of a being caught in evolved mechanisms of self-deception to the point of becoming a victim of its own actions. It will be an image of a class of naturally evolved cognitive systems that, because of their own cognitive structure, are unable to react adequately to certain challenges—even when they are able to intellectually grasp the expected consequences, and even when, in addition, they consciously experience this very fact about themselves clearly and distinctly.

At the same time, our scientific-philosophical image of ourselves is undergoing a profound upheaval. Our theories about ourselves and especially about our own minds are changing. Elsewhere, I call this second and simultaneously unfolding process the “naturalistic turn in the image of humankind”1: genetics, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and contemporary philosophy of mind are successively providing us with a new image of ourselves, an increasingly detailed theoretical understanding of our cognitive deep structure, its neural basis and biological history.

Whether we like it or not, we are beginning to view our mental abilities as natural properties with a biological history of their own, as properties that can be explained using the methods of science, that can in principle be controlled technologically and can maybe even be implemented on non-biological carrier systems.

It’s unlikely that new scientific insights can help us solve problems in the external world

Clearly, this development is also an intellectual challenge for humanity as a whole. Subjectively, many experience it as a further threat, as a potential insult and what Freud would call a narcissistic wound, a new danger for the integrity of our inner world. It is still unclear whether these new scientific insights also present a genuine opportunity, whether they can perhaps help us curtail the objective problems in the external world in the medium term. But given the global scale of the challenge this seems improbable.

It is also unclear whether there is an inherent connection, an inner link between the two big intellectual challenges for human-kind—maybe in the form of a single, coherent strategy in searching for the right answers on the level of collective action, or at least in the sense of a personal ethical stance that could provide support on the individual level even if humanity as a whole fails.

At the end of my monograph The Ego Tunnel (free download) [Video talk The Ego Tunnel], which was written for a popular audience, I said that in the historical transition that is just beginning, the biggest theoretical challenge may be the question “whether and how, given our new situation, intellectual honesty and spirituality can ever be reconciled”2. This idea met with great interest. This essay can be read as an epilogue to the Ego Tunnel, as an explanatory afterword, but maybe also as a starting point for a completely new line of thought. At the same time, it is the first written summary of the most important ideas of a public lecture that I gave in Berlin on November 27th, 2010 at the end of an interdisciplinary conference on the topic of “Meditation and Science”. Transcripts and video documentation of this lecture have been circulating on the internet for some time now.3

Metzinger cautions that his essay is below the level of academic philosophy

In the first section of this essay, I briefly investigate what “spirituality” could mean today. The second section directs readers’ attention towards the concept of “intellectual honesty”. After these conceptual clarifications, the third section raises the question of whether there is an inner conceptual connection between the spiritual stance and a strictly rationalist, scientific view. Because this question concerns us all, I decided to formulate the following reflections as simply and as accessibly as I can. But I also want to point out right at the beginning that this simplicity comes at a price: The following reflections are below the level of academic philosophy, both in historical and systematic terms. The concept of “spirituality”, for instance, has a century-long history in philosophy and theology, and my cursory remarks on the ideal of “intellectual honesty” not only ignore its deep historical dimension, but are also conceptually much more coarse-grained than the level of analysis offered by contemporary philosophy of mind and epistemology. For readers who would like to enter more deeply into the technical debates, I will include some pointers to the academic literature in the endnotes as a first starting point. But in writing this essay, I hope that even the weaker and less precise tools used here might suffice to pick out exactly those points that may turn out to be truly relevant at the end.

Can something like a secularized form of spirituality exist?

In the context of the historical period of transition sketched above, the following question seems to be of central importance: Can something like a completely secularized form of spirituality exist? Or is this idea perhaps incoherent—something that on second sight cannot be described consistently and without getting lost in obvious contradictions? This philosophical problem—the question about the inner structure, the conditions of possibility for a secularized form of spirituality—is so interesting and for many has come to be so important that we should approach it very carefully, and in small steps. For this reason, I want to ask three very simple questions in the following three sections: What is “spirituality”? What exactly is meant by the idea of “intellectual honesty”? And: Is there an inner connection between these two stances on the world and our own minds?

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Intellectual honesty

Simply, intellectual honesty means not being willing to lie to yourself

Intellectual honesty means simply not being willing to lie to oneself. It is closely related to old-fashioned values such as propriety, integrity and sincerity, to a certain form of “inner decency”. Perhaps one could say that it is a very conservative way of being truly subversive.

But intellectual honesty may not be what religions want

But intellectual honesty might at the same time also be exactly what representatives of organized religions and theologians of any type simply cannot have, even if they would like to make claims to the contrary. Intellectual honesty means not pretending to know or even to be able to know the unknowable while still having an unconditional will to truth and knowledge, even where self-knowledge is involved and even where self-knowledge is not accompanied by pleasant feelings or is not in accordance with the received doctrine.

Intellectual honesty concerns knowing what you should believe in the first place

Some philosophers conceptualize intellectual honesty as a virtue, as an “intellectual virtue” concerning one’s own thoughts and inner actions, as an ethical stance towards one’s thoughts and beliefs.11 Again, this involves moral integrity. It means that, as often as possible, one’s actions should be in accordance with the values one has adopted as one’s own— and it concerns the question of what one should believe in the first place. Adopting a belief as one’s own is itself an inner action, and one that it is possible from which to refrain.

Inner self-regulation exists with respect to what one believes

The spontaneous appearance of a belief is one thing, the active endorsement of this belief by holding on to it another. Aside from emotional self-regulation (the ability to purposefully influence one’s emotional state) and the ability to control the focus of attention, inner self-regulation also exists with respect to what one believes.

Interestingly, infants only gradually learn to control their emotional states and the focus of their attention. But the kind of critical self-regulation involved in adopting beliefs as one’s own is something that even many adults are not proficient in and never fully master.

Is it possible to enhance one’s inner freedom?

Is it possible to enhance one’s autonomy, one’s inner freedom, by practicing and improving this particular type of self-control? This is exactly what is involved in intellectual honesty. And it is interesting to note that meditation aims to increase this very same kind of mental autonomy – namely, by cultivating a specific and effortless form of inner awareness.12 Meditation cultivates the mental conditions of possibility for rationality. It involves the inner ability to refrain from acting, the gentle but yet precise optimization of impulse control and the gradual development of an awareness of the automatic identification mechanisms on the level of conscious thought.

Thinking is about having only evidence-based beliefs; and not having emotional needs influence your thinking

Thinking is not about pleasant feelings. It is about the best-possible agreement between knowledge and opinion; and it is about having only evidence-based beliefs and about cognition not serving emotional needs. Have you noticed how the last two points suggest that all of this also involves abstinence, a special form of mental asceticism? And it reveals first points of contact to the spiritual stance. The central insight, however, is that the sincere pursuit of intellectual integrity is an important special case of the pursuit of moral integrity. More about this soon.

We act “epistemically” whenever we strive for insight, for knowledge, for true belief, for sincerity, and for authentic self-knowledge.

Whoever wants to become whole—a person of integrity—by gradually resolving all conflict between their actions and values must pursue this principle with their inner actions as well. This requirement is especially true for their “epistemic actions”, their action for the sake of knowledge. We act “epistemically” whenever we strive for insight, for knowledge or true belief, for sincerity and also for authentic self-knowledge.

An ethics of inner action for knowledge’s sake is the bridge between spiritual practice and rational thought

As all meditators know, there is more than one form of inner knowledge, and inner epistemic action cannot simply be reduced to the intellect or to thought. This seems to be a first bridge between spiritual practice and the ideal of reasonable, rational thought: both involve an ethics of inner action for the sake of knowledge.

The goal in both cases  is “a systematic enhancement of mental autonomy”

Moreover, in both cases the goal is a systematic enhancement of mental autonomy. It is interesting to note that spiritual practice is much deeper, more refined and better developed in Asia than in the West. Occidental cultures, in the spirit of the enlightenment, increasingly developed and focused on the ideal of intellectual honesty.

Let us look at four stages in the Western history of ideas in order to see this inner connection more clearly.

[First Stage]

For John Locke, intellectual honesty is a moral obligation that we have towards God

For the British philosopher John Locke, the desire for knowledge itself was a religious duty towards God: „He that believes, without having any reason for believing, may be in love with his own fancies; but neither seeks truth as he ought, nor pays the obedience due to his maker, who would have him use those discerning faculties he has given him, to keep him out of mistake and error . . . “13  If God really is a person, and one with such distinctly human properties as “intentions”, then he cannot want us to simply believe in his existence. He must want us to try to know of his existence. This nicely illustrates the philosophical idea that at the very beginning, intellectual honesty and striving for knowledge themselves still are religious duties towards God. On the other hand, for Locke, this also always involved acknowledging clear awareness of the limits of our knowledge— trying to go beyond these limits (for instance by trying to answer questions about the immortality of the soul) goes beyond our God-given intellectual powers.

[Second Stage]

Immanuel Kant said that intellectual honesty is the sincerity of the intention of being honest towards yourself — what counts is the purity of your intention

At the very beginning, philosophical honesty involves modesty. This is what Immanuel Kant would have said about honesty in general: The strict duty of honest comportment is “reason translated into social practice,” because it first creates the preconditions for mutual trust between the members of a society and thereby forms the basis of public order. I think the same could be true for the inner stage, for the protagonists of my inner life (that, as we all know, often resembles a civil war and sometimes even a completely uncivilized natural state, a war of each against all). How could this barbarism in my own consciousness be ended in a peaceful manner? What exactly is required to attain mental civility, an “inner state of civilization”? Maybe we could say that it involves “commitment towards oneself”—the foundation of an inner order for one’s own mind. In 1793, in “Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason”, Immanuel Kant put this point in a completely different, but particularly beautiful manner. What is needed, he says, is the sincere intention of being honest towards one-self.14 The “sincerity” or “pureness” of the desire for honesty towards oneself is, I think, the central point. This point also provides the second bridge to spirituality: Now, at the very latest, you should begin to sense that a strict and altogether old-fashioned form of rationalism could have a lot to do with spirituality.

Kant even tells us that this form of intellectual honesty is the innermost core of morality in general. It is, as it were, the essence of the desire for ethical integrity. Here is how one put this in 1793: it is “the idea of the moral good in its absolute purity”. In the Metaphysics of Morals (1797), he put this point concisely and clearly: “. . . man’s duty to himself regarded merely as a moral being . . . is . . . truthfulness.” At this point, Kant can also explain what intellectual dishonesty is, namely a kind of “inner lie”. For Kant, dishonesty is simply a lack of conscientiousness. Lacking conscientiousness in the ethical sense of inner action is nothing other than a form of unconsciousness, a lack of awareness—a further, interesting connection not only to the spiritual stance, but also to the history of the concept of “consciousness” in the occidental tradition.15

[Third Stage]

For Friedrich Nietzsche intellectual honesty is the unconditional will to truth based in knowledge

For Friedrich Nietzsche, intellectual honesty is the “conscience behind the conscience“. In 1838, he wrote in “Zarathustra”: “Where my honesty ceases I am blind and also want to be blind. But where I want to know, I also want to be honest, namely venomous, rigorous, vigorous, cruel and inexorable.” Nietzsche was one of the first philosophers to really write about intellectual honesty, about “conscientiousness of the mind” as an ethics of cognitive action more narrowly conceived.16 It is interesting to note that, once more, this involves a certain form of asceticism, of letting go. For Nietzsche, intellectual honesty is the “culmination and ‘last virtue’” of the Greco-Christian history of ideas, because it leads to the self-annihilation of the religious-moral interpretation of the will to truth. What exactly does this mean? In its highest form, the desire for truthfulness allows one to admit to oneself that there is no empirical evidence of God’s existence whatsoever, and that in more than four thousand years of the history of philosophy, no convincing argument for the existence of God has emerged. It allows us to relinquish our search for emotional security and pleasant feelings, which has been hard-wired into our minds and bodies in the course of evolution, and admit that we are radically mortal beings with a tendency towards systematic forms of self-deception. Truthfulness towards ourselves allows us to discover the delusional and systematic denial of finitude, as expressed in our own conscious self-model. More about this point soon.

[Fourth Stage]

William Kingdon Clifford based his concept of intellectual honesty on two principles: beliefs must be based on sufficient evidence; and it is wrong to ignore or reject relevant evidence that is the basis of your own belief

The philosophical debate in Anglo-Saxon culture has been considerably more profound, and analytically more clear and substantial. Let us look at the fourth example form the history of the concept of “intellectual honesty”. Today, the technical debate is conducted under the title of “The Ethics of Belief”—and this already reveals one of its most important aspects: When is it permissive, from an ethical and moral perspective, to believe in something specific, or to adopt a certain belief “as one’s own”?

The British philosopher and mathematician William Kingdon Clifford was one of the first thinkers to ask this question, and subsequently became the founding father of this discussion, which is central to the distinction between religion and spirituality. His two main principles are:

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

At any time, at any place, and for every person it is wrong to ignore or carelessly reject the relevant evidence for one’s own beliefs.17

‘Evidentialism’, as this position is called, means believing only those things which you can defend with arguments and evidence 

In academic philosophy, this position is simply called “evidentialism”. This means only believing things for which one actually has arguments and evidence. The philosophical counterpart is something we are all familiar with, namely dogmatism and fideism. Dogmatism is the thesis that “It is legitimate to hold on to a belief simply because one already has it.” In philosophy, fideism is the thesis that it is also completely legitimate to hold on to a belief when there are no good reasons or evidence in its favor, and even when faced with convincing counterarguments. Fideism is the standpoint of pure faith. For a fideist, it is legitimate to hold on to beliefs that not only lack any positive arguments or evidence in their favor, but even in the face of strong counterarguments and strong empirical evidence to the contrary. The interesting point now is that fideism can be described as the refusal to take any ethical stance on one’s inner actions whatsoever. It involves a lack of inner decency. And this is the classical standpoint of organized religion as opposed to spirituality. If one were to interpret these two epistemological positions from a purely psychological perspective, one could say that fideism involves deliberate self-deception, systematic wishful thinking or even paranoia; whereas the psychological goal of the ethics of belief consists in a certain form of mental health. I call this form of mental health “intellectual integrity”.18

To cling to unsubstantiated beliefs is to reject intellectual honesty, and to lose one’s personal integrity

If you let yourself go and allow yourself to simply hold on to a certain belief in the complete absence of any positive theoretical or practical evidence, then you have already given up on the whole idea of an ethics for inner action. In doing so, you reject the project of intellectual honesty, and on the level of your own mind, you refuse not only rationality, but also morality. This not only changes your own opinions and beliefs, but causes you, the person as a whole, to lose your integrity.

Modern religious and spiritual movements “are characterized by an infantile complacency and crude forms of intellectual dishonesty”

And this is what I meant at the beginning, when I said that intellectual honesty is what theologians and representatives of organized religions of any type simply cannot have. This sentence might have sounded like cheap polemics or deliberate provocation just for the sake of it. But it is really about a simple, clear, and objective point, namely the “principle of self-respect”—about how not to lose one’s dignity and mental autonomy. Importantly, this statement not only concerns traditional churches, but also a large part of the so-called “alternative spiritual culture”. Many of the movements that developed in recent decades in Europe and the United States have long lost their progressive impulse. Today, they merely stabilize or conserve the status quo and are characterized by an infantile complacency and crude forms of intellectual dishonesty. Anyone who is seriously interested in our question concerning the possibility of a secularized spirituality has to take all the relevant empirical data and all possible counterarguments into account. In 1877, the philosopher William Clifford claimed the following about anyone who is unwilling to do so by “purposely avoiding the reading of books and the company of men who call in question or discuss” their presuppositions: “The life of that man is one long sin against mankind”.

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