The main idea of this book is valid, but it runs against great many things that we all get indoctrinated with from early childhood. It is not just restates such platitudes as that life is not fair, but it also states that it makes a lot of sense and that we wood be worse off if somehow it would be otherwise.
One of the most interesting points is that big and famous “humanists” like Gandhi are really inhumane because they often put some ideal of abstract humanism higher then real and concrete human beings they are dealing with. So somehow it becomes not only acceptable to hurt real humans in the name of great idea, but even necessary and justifiable to do so.
Luckily unfairness is so deep seated in us that it is more often then not overcomes abstract indoctrination and makes us to be unfair often without even recognizing it.
Here are some points made in this book:
Biological favoritism – the idea that some human being could be equally impartial to their own children and to children of strangers contradicts our real life experience, even if it is supported by many philosophers and ethicists. The book provides a nice tour on biological mechanics of why it is so. Obviously process of evolution would probably filter out individuals who have problem prioritizing limited resources they have by allocating these resources randomly instead based on genetic closeness.
Uniqueness of Western culture, which somehow overcame, at least to some extent, this biological favoritism and puts high value on equality before the low and kindness to strangers. Interesting point is made on artistic representation of reality. In Western culture at some point the correct perspective started to be used making various figures proportional so king would not be bigger in size then regular person. It seems to be correlated with development of capitalism and appearance of wealthy commoners.
After spending a bulk of book on interplay between western egalitarian culture, author goes through review of Chinese, Indian, and other non-western cultures.
The remaining part is most interesting by attempt to accommodate two contradictory forces: fairness with more good for most people and favoritism with helping keen first. The final result presented by thought experiment of utilitarian philosopher William Godwin when one have a choice of saving chambermaid who happens to be his mother and archbishop. Godwin insists that to save archbishop is more important because of his value for humanity. Stephen Asma insists on saving his mother. I completely agree with him and I even think that it is much more humane and even more reasonable from utilitarian point of few because utility of once mother is known to this person, while utility of archbishops for anybody is always questionable.
The book is about case of State against people and nature. It starts with observation that state is somehow always against “people, who are moving around”. This analysis led to understanding that main functions of state: taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion are successful only if people are easily found, their wealth is easily assessed, and, most important they could be easily robbed.
From here comes the most common functions of the state – creation of identification system in the form of last names, standardization of measures, creation of cadastral surveys, and population registers. In short the state and its bureaucracy creates conditions necessary for population control by bureaucracy with consequent confiscation and concentration of resources to achieve whatever objectives bureaucracy wants to achieve.
The book reviews real life examples of state projects, philosophy behind them, and catastrophic results of violent implementation of different visions of bureaucracies in different countries and places.
The projects reviewed are:
• Forest management in Germany
• Artificial cities build from the scratch like in Brazil and/or existing cities modernized by bureaucracy like Paris by Napoleon III.
• Creation of surnames
• Implementation of standard national language
• Centralization and restructuring of traffic
The book is reviewing history and logic of authoritarian high modernist visions, which are nothing more then different forms of socialism developed in Europe and implemented to various degrees around the world. Two visions are analyzed in details one architectural – Le Corbusier and his “Radiant City”, and another one – political – Lenin and his new type of Revolutionary party.
Bulk of the book is dedicated to history of 3 sad examples of application of high modernist visions using bureaucratic power of state: Soviet Collectivization, Viligization in Tanzania, and modernization of agriculture in the third world. The disastrous character of the first two is well known. However agricultural change is not that easily defined and author admits that it led to dramatic increase in agricultural production, even if it was done not in the best possible way.
The somewhat unusual approach to all this consists in analysis of bureaucratic intervention as conflict between simplified view of the world developed and used by educated bureaucrat with little to none practical knowledge who lives and dies by getting resources from other people using coercion versus complicated and nuanced view of uneducated farmer who survives by constant experimentation and interaction with nature where resources are obtained from by accommodation and use of natural processes.
The main lesson here is that the more power bureaucracy has, the more damage it could cause by implementing its high modernist visions. In countries with powerful bureaucratic traditions this damage is in millions of human lives. In courtiers with relatively limited bureaucratic tradition and strong democratic traditions the damage come just as significant decrease in quality of lives for millions of people.
If only enough people were able to learn these lessons, the power of bureaucracy would be suppressed and the lives of these people would be significantly better.
The main idea is that America throughout its history periodically undergoing a significant change via religious-political movements – Great Awakenings. These movements are based on interplay of two egalitarian principles that are foundation of American Culture – Equality of Condition and Equality of Opportunity. Robert Fogel identifies 4 such Great awakenings when one of these two principals was moving upfront pushing away another one only after achieving significant improvement in lives of Americans and then to be pushed aside by the next Great Awakening, which moves upfront another egalitarian principle.
Here are these four Great Awakenings:
The First Great Awakening religious phase started in late 1730s with theological movement to undermine position of church leaders by accusing them in corruption and calling on people to trust their own judgment and experience. The political ascendancy phase run from 1760s through 1790 and included revolutionary movement against British monarchy resulting in formation of new United States of America. The political coalition of evangelicals, deists, farmers, artisans, and slaveholders that brought in this development lasted until 1820 when it broke apart due to difference in economic and ideological interest of these diverse groups.
The Second Great Awakening began in 1800 overlapping the late part of the First Awakening and bringing new religious fever to mainly secular country. It featured new religious leaders who were seeking to achieve God’s kingdom on earth, defining it as the America’s mission. By 1840 it morphed into anti-slavery and anti-alcohol movements. The political phase that started in this period lasted until 1870 and included struggle for union and Civil war that lead to abolition of slavery. It ran out of steam by 1880s so Southern states partially reconstruct prewar political structure in form of segregation. However it established formal equality of all people of all races and at the far end it even won political war against alcohol by establishing prohibition, even if it was a pyrrhic victory.
The Third Awakening began in 1890 and featured labor conflict and struggle between traditional American culture of equal opportunity and religiosity against modernist, mainly secular, somewhat socialistic movement for equal outcomes. This movement pretty much won in 1930s when big government policies they advocated brought economy to great depression on the watch of progressive republicans which progressive democrats successfully used to decidedly win ideological war, at least for the next 50 years successfully establishing welfare state. This victory, as it always happens in America due to the culture of democracy, could not possibly be final and planted seeds of its own demise by consistently decreasing quality of life for majority of Americans.
The Fourth Great Awakening started in 1980s and initially included significant religious movement of evangelicals. However main thrust of the movement moved to reestablishment of American creed of self-reliance and opportunity at the expense of diminishing size of government and welfare state.
The book was written in 1990s so RF did not deal with counterattack of big government progressives which again successfully used failure of big government republicans to deal with crises caused by big government policies, but at least for now it look like this counterattack, by allowing massive expansion of big government among population that does not like big government, will end up in dramatic defeat for progressives. This defeat will open a huge opportunity for expansion of American free civil society at the expense of contraction of big bureaucratic government.
Overall despite of aging process inevitable for any politico-philosophical work Robert Fogel’s book is still very interesting and provides significant insights into American history and culture.
Csikszentmihalyi has a difficult name to remember and the great ideas to follow. He is a man who is famous for developing notion of FLOW – the condition of human being at the moment of submergence in meaningful activity, which is perfectly realigned with ability of this person to handle the activity, and provides immediate feedback on progress allowing on the spot correction. This realignment provides for feeling of achievement, happiness, and fulfillment that would be impossible if the activity’s demands were above person’s aptitude (failure leading to frustration) or below person’s aptitude (low level of challenge leading to boredom). The notion of flow was developed from experiments based on random checks of correlation between psychological condition and activity at the moment.
This book is going way beyond psychology into quite interesting review of human condition, history, and potential for future. I think it worth to check all 10 specific themes discussed in this book’s chapters. MC defines objective of this book as analysis of forces that shaped humanity, review of ways to free humanity from “the dead hand of the past”, and suggestion of how to improve quality of life and achieve “joyful involvement”. So here it goes:
1. MIND AND HISTORY
The idea I am fully agreed upon with MC is that we are formed by evolution, future is unknown, incomprehensible, and subject to chaotic changes represented by butterfly effect. MC presents a very interesting idea that evolution is a buffer between deterministic forces and human actions. I think it is a great idea except that I would not limit it to humans only. We are animals and not only humans, but all complex animals define their future by their actions which in turn defined not only by biology, but also by patterns of behavior acquired from surrounding animals through process of socialization and skill acquisition whether this process happens to be in Harvard or in the herd of antelopes.
There is an interesting discussion about good and bad in human nature, but it is kind of beyond the point. Humans act trying to achieve whatever objective they have either it is successful hunt or building house. The result of actions in specific environment leads either to passing of some genes on to the next generation or not. The complex machinery of brain includes multiple semi-independent systems, which create representation of environment based on current sensory input, rules learned during socialization, and previous experience. This machinery is based on genes, but actually a lot less then car is based on blueprint, because genes get expressed or not depending on environment and timing of external signals. In short, human’s developed self that is always unique even if compared with self of another human with the same set of genes (twin).
In this regard a very interesting idea of MC is that animal without self needs reproduce only the information in its genes, while person with self will want to keep and spread information in his or her consciousness as well. MC believes that the fate of humanity depends on kind of self we are creating. Evolution is not guarantied human continuation and whether life exists or not depends on humans’ understanding of their place in the nature. I think in a little bit different venue. I see humans as part of nature and evolution as force not that much different from gravitation so we hardly have option to stop it. Actually whatever we’ll do is a part of nature and if we changing wild forest into the city this city is a part of nature not any less then ants colony. What I do agree with MC is that kind of self that we are developing has a huge implication for the kind of lives we are going to have.
2. WHO CONTROLS THE MIND
The discussion presented here in regard to brain-mind mechanism is kind of difficult for me to comprehend because I do not see any difference between brain and mind. The congestion that we need conscious control over our mind because it is limited by evolution and has lots of imbedded biases is completely valid. However the idea that our educated in university and highly conscious reason is in any way deprived of biases seems to me completely ridiculous. Both gut feelings of unconscious and well-reasoned inferences of conscious include biases, misrepresentations and errors. There is one and only one method that works was discovered so far – science based on experiment and falsification of theories. This and only this invention gave us all technology that we have and gave us incredible opportunity to go through live without starving and fighting other people for survival. Actually we and other animals in possession of brain used this method from the very beginning as long as we’ve got brain via evolutionary process. As far as I am concern brain is just another organ, which give its processor valuable advantage in strive for survival – instant accommodation to constantly changed environment based on accumulated patterns of past events either obtained via experience or via communications with other animals. Since this organ is highly self-programmable it is obvious that this advantage is big enough to justify long period of growth and programming and high consumption of energy required by the brain. So, I guess my answer would be – nobody controls the brain, it just runs its program changing it on the fly as needed to accommodate to environment.
3. VEILS OF MAYA – GENES, CULTURE, AND SELF
Veils of Maya expression come not from America, but from Hindu and means illusion. MC goes through discussion of multiple levels of illusions that populate our mind/brain. It created by our genes, our culture, our environment, and by self and he comes to conclusion that reality is eminently elusive. I could not agree more, but I do not think it matters. We had to understand and accept that our theories are always either completely wrong or ruefully incomplete. So what? The only thing that really count is that they are at least partially work and allow us predict future from weather tomorrow to behavior of new airplane before it took off. The problem is that we way too often refuse to accept our limitations trying to act based on reasonable theories that are simply speculation like changing behavior based on weather prediction for 100 years from now.
4. PREDATORS AND PARASITES
This part is about external obstacles humans encounter that come from interaction with other people. This is another level of evolutionary process when we deal with predators and parasites: two types who try to prosper at our expense – predators by taking all our resources and annihilating us in the process, while parasites just milking out some resources leaving us alive so we could continue to provide for them. MC provides quite interesting discussion along these lines about exploitation and power plays between humans. I would just look at the two examples: cannibals as predators who would kill and eat us and bureaucrats and politicians as parasites who live by sucking out our resources.
5. MEMES VS. GENES
Next comes memes versus genes discussion. Meme being cultural equivalent of gene that carries unit of cultural information while gene carries a unit of biological information. The main idea here is that memes go through the same process of evolution as genes only much faster. I am completely agreed with it.
6. DIRECTING EVOLUTION
The main idea is that process of evolution is unstoppable and humanity needs to direct this process, rather then passively allow it to go its own way without control. MC states 7 rules of evolution build around energy consumption that do not make a lot of sense to me. The key difference is rule 3 where MC stated that each organism would try to take as much energy from environment as possible. I do not think this statement is supported by reality. I would rather state that each organism try to obtain as much energy as required by its internal structure in order to obtain state of satisfaction.
MC infers from this rule inevitability of self-destruction due to over consumption of energy, unless some more complex type of live externally limit this consumption for a less complex organism. So his solutions for preventing self-destruction by over consumption are: control of population and Eumemics – limiting reproduction of memes. I should say that MC deserves respect for not suggesting something like Chinese one child policy to control population and censorship to implement Eumemics, but he gets pretty close to it. What is obvious however is that he is looking for “collective” actions for resolution of these problems. Since I do not believe in existing of “collective” as thinking and acting entity, I think all this would be naturally resolved by voluntary individual actions.
7. EVOLUTION AND FLOW
The main idea is that FLOW is an evolutionary tool that make human much more evolutionary fit by increasing complexity of their behavior and providing innate rewards for correct behavior. I could not agree more.
8. THE TRANSCENDENT SELF
Here MC is bringing notion of Trascender or T-person – the person whose psychic energy is joyfully invested in complex goals. It is a funny part of the book because MC provides examples of T-person and goes into some weird staff about “something in our mind that is more than the sum of the individual neurons that make up the brain”. Since I think that we all are just a bunch of connected neurons, this “something” makes no sense to me whatsoever. However it is fun to read anyway.
MC also allocates lots of space to creation and maintenance of images including self-images and collective images and this part actually does make a lot of sense.
9. THE FLOW OF HISTORY
In this part the discussion of history turns into discussion of “good society” MC goes through short analysis of French revolutionary ideals vs. American ideals and eventually comes to definition that “a good society is one that helps each individual develop his/her genetic potential to its fullest”. This is the statement I fully agree with. However MC’s extension to “ It must take into account differentiation and integration beyond the needs of individual human beings, and of humanity as whole. It has to be a system that recognizes the law of nature as well as laws of men”. Here is difference – I believe that as long as individual is taken care off, everything else will be fine even if “laws of men” are corrected. As to the law of nature, I have no idea how one could not comply with them. It is just not possible. What we need is just a better understanding of such laws and consequences that these laws cause in response to our action. We actually have a good tool for this – science, that is system of methods of processing information that allows limited correct predictions of the future conditions arrived to as consequence of action.
10. A FELLOWSHIP OF THE FUTURE
When I got to the final part of the book about creating “Fellowship of the Future” – that is informal community of individuals moving world to better future as MC understands it, I somewhat unexpectedly found that I pretty much agree with his tenets on which to base the work of such fellowship. Here they are:
a. You are part of everything around you: the air, the earth, and the sea; the past and the future
b. You shall not deny your uniqueness
c. You are responsible for your actions
d. You shall be more than what you are – the self is a creative construction.