Mindful Murmurations II: Two Views From Nowhere

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: ‘Rising Sun’ by Max Pechstein, 1933. Warm colors and soft lines contribute to an overall feeling of serenity.

In the previous essay, we saw the power of common knowledge to orchestrate collective action. We also saw that, generally, common knowledge is difficult to attain without a shared source of truth. This poses a problem for collective action: if we can’t be certain of whether others act alongside ourselves, taking action may be ill-advised; but then, it seems, we ought to conclude that the others will follow the same reasoning, and fail to act, when in fact, acting together would have been in everyone’s best interest.

I argued that, in such cases, the replacement for a common source of truth is to be found in the notion of faith: following William James, faith in a position is justified when evidence for the truth of that position is only available consequent to adopting it. For collective action, we each must have faith in the other’s actions; only then will we act ourselves, as will the others, and only by this will our faith be justified. Hence, having faith in other’s actions opens up a path to collective action where rational considerations might make it seem safer to abstain from action.

But the above glosses over an often underappreciated problem: facts, knowledge, or faith on its own doesn’t have any power to compel action. Just because things are this way or that doesn’t force me to do anything about it.

Why did the children in the muddy forehead puzzle stand up? The obvious answer is that they stood up because they could reason out that they had a muddy forehead. But that’s at best half right. There’s nothing about the mere fact of having a muddy forehead that compels a child to get up and wash; rather, they must furthermore want to get clean, or at least, want to obey their father’s wishes. The state of having a dirty forehead, or of not obeying their father, must be one that motivates them to act—otherwise, while fully knowing that they are, indeed, dirty, they might just have continued playing in the mud.

Knowledge doesn’t motivate action; to act, we first have to care about what is being indicated. We are not dispassionate knowers of facts—rather, every situation has an affective value to us, and it is this value that spurs us to act. We seek out sweet treats not for the facts of their nutrition, but because they taste good, making eating them a pleasurable experience; we lash out at somebody who we perceive to have wronged us not because of the facts of the case, but out of (righteous, no doubt) anger. It’s the way our affects color the facts that makes us act, not the mere facts themselves, nor our knowledge of them.

The Capgras World

Take the case of Capgras delusion, sufferers of which will insist that a loved one—a friend, spouse, or child—has been replaced by an identical duplicate. They are not any less able than others to recognize these loved ones, in the sense of being able to pick them out of a lineup; yet, they will insist that whoever that is, it’s not really the person they seem to be. One theory is that this misidentification is due to losing the emotional connection to the person in question—that, for instance, while you can still recognize the face of your lover, the frisson of your closeness, the fluttering of butterflies in your stomach upon meeting them, is just gone. But to you, that’s part of who that person is, just as much as the color of their hair, the curl of their lips, or the mole on their left cheek.

Thus, we identify and evaluate persons—and, one may propose, situations and circumstances as well—not merely by the mere facts of their appearance, but by our own affective reaction to them. Just as you react differently when it comes to threats to your loved ones as opposed to random strangers, situations that are affectually charged to you will evoke different behavior than situations that aren’t—and the way in which they’re so charged dictates the way in which you act.

(This sometimes leads to charges of hypocrisy: you act one way in one situation, yet differently in another, despite the surface level facts of the matter being similar. But this misidentifies those facts as the relevant determinants of behavior. With the understanding that it is ultimately our affective reaction to the facts, rather than the facts themselves, that determines our actions, I think we can often achieve a more sympathetic understanding of another’s otherwise puzzling behavior.)

Figure 2: ‘Sunrise’ by Otto Dix, 1916. The same subject matter, yet the cold palette and harsh brushstrokes create a feeling of unease and foreboding.

Consequently, to get people to act a certain way, it is not enough to merely confront them with the facts of a situation; one has to present these facts under the right affective light. So, even a unified source of truth isn’t enough to spur collective action—rather, people, if they are to act, need to be presented with the right sort of affect, as well.

This is of course the great insight of the field of public relations, as conceived of by Edward Bernays, nephew to ur-psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. But this association also highlights the dangers of engaging in the manipulation of affect: some of Bernays’ greatest hits include making bacon and eggs the American staple breakfast, getting more women to smoke by linking consumption of ‘Torches of Freedom’ to women’s emancipation, and contributing to the overthrow of the Guatemalan government by presenting them as communist marionettes, so as to ensure continued profits for the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands International).

Thus, manipulating affect is a dangerous business. The same facts can appear under different affective glosses, and spur radically different actions. Affect may be necessary for action, but it also biases, prompting people to act against their own best interest in the grip of the right PR spin. This can go either way: diamonds, for instance, are not all that rare in nature (rubies are much more scarce), and it is only thanks to a concerted PR campaign by advertising agency N. W. Ayer & Son, coupled with artificial scarcity enforced, largely, by De Beers. On the other end of the scale, there’s New Coke: preferred by the majority in blind taste tests, Coca-Cola was so sure to have a winner on their hands they retired the original formula from production in favor of the superior product—but backlash eventually forced them to return to the original within less than 80 days.

Figure 3: Woman lighting up at the ‘Torches for Freedom’ march, New York, 1929.

The manipulation of collective affect then isn’t merely more than a little morally sketchy, but also unreliable—snowball effects can create backlash, creating the opposite of the desired action. Thus, to spur rational collective action, we must find a way to avail us of the motivating power of affect, without falling victim to its biasing nature.

Consider what it is that spurs you into action in an affect-laden situations. Say, you’re driving on the highway, and are suddenly cut off by another car. Your heart rate jumps, your vision narrows, you emit a choice selection of appropriately affect-laden expletives, maybe you hit the horn or flash your lights. Moreover, the other car’s driver immediately appears to you as an idiot, or as inconsiderate, or just a bad driver: one single occurrence is enough to assign essential characteristics to them. As such, they’re deserving of the expletives or public reprimands in the form of a beeping horn.

However, if you’re honest, you’ve probably cut off other drivers in much the same way. But this doesn’t make you think of yourself as an idiot—maybe you’ve just gotten the news that your spouse had been rushed to the hospital, and were thus understandably in a rush and distressed. You know the full story, in your case, but only your affect in the case of others. This affect then invariably colors your perception, imbuing them with inherent features to justify the affect: people you like are lovely, kind, and generous, while people you dislike are base, mean, and avaricious.

Views From Nowhere: Outward And Inward

There are two roads to dealing with this problem, which I think of as two views from nowhere: the outward and inward view. The outward view aims to retreat from the affects to the facts as such, to abstract away from emotional baggage, embrace a rational outlook. One might term this the Vulcan way, after the Star Trek-aliens that renounce their emotions in favor of an adherence to strict logic. It’s the strategy of rational choice theory, the folly of scientism, the calculations of Homo Oeconomicus, the utilitarian dispassionate weighing up of consequences.

I don’t think this strategy is likely to be successful. Ultimately, it turns the world into a Capgras copy: a bloodless duplicate, where all action might follow a strict calculus of expected utility, but where we have no real reason to ever actually act. Therefore, I prefer the inward view: in a sense, going beyond our affects (rather than ‘below’ them) without renouncing them, but also, without becoming swept up in them.

To be caught up in an affect is to view the world, or some facet of it, as having an essential character that’s responsible for our affective reaction. Like considering diamonds to be intrinsically valuable thanks to skillful PR, we consider the driver who cuts us off an essentially inconsiderate person, even though this characterization ultimately originates with our own affective response to the situation.

It’s a tenet of Buddhist thought that this sort of essentialism is due to a misperception of the world: that you experience your affects as ineluctably yours, that the anger you feel at the driver who’s just cut you off is your anger, that angry is just something you are. But while the reality of the anger need not be denied, your identification with it can be.

Here, by identification with an affect I mean the act of making an affect yours—of saying, this is my anger, my love, my pleasure, my pain. This implies the existence of a distinct self, an ‘I’, that can be construed as the haver of some pleasure or pain; a self which can be situated within an affect, and for which this affect then colors the facts. It might be odd to phrase this as a sort of active action, when generally, we feel ourselves as the passive recipient of our affects—we don’t feel like we have to go out and make some particular feeling of anger ours, we simply get angry.

But, with some training—and here, by ‘training’ I mean basically following some contemplative practice, like mindfulness meditation—it becomes possible to experience that this association can come apart: to experience that the anger that one just a moment ago had felt burning at the very center of one’s being is not an ineluctable characteristic of our innermost self, but just another thing in the world, and that our identification with it is ultimately little more than habit. A habit that has made good evolutionary sense in the past, where our ancestors would have been ill advised to ponder whether their reflexive fright of a tiger and the action of flight it causes is truly part of their core self—but a habit nonetheless.

This idea is by no means exclusive to Buddhist thought. As David Hume put it in A Treatise of Human Nature, all of our inner sensations

are different, and distinguishable, and separable from each other, and may be separately consider’d, and may exist separately, and have no need of any thing to support their existence. After what manner, therefore, do they belong to self; and how are they connected with it?

This forms the basis of Hume’s bundle theory of the self, although it might be better to consider it a bundle theory of no-self: there is no distinct entity called ‘the self’, there is only a bundle of sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and affects. A feeling of anger, then, is just that, and nothing more; it’s not that there is some elusive entity called ‘I’ that ‘is angry’, no matter how much we might like to think that way.

Figure 5: Under a different affect, the same facts seem to possess a different intrinsic nature.

A similar conclusion can be reached by contemplating the implications of the view of life as a unified whole, as outlined in last month’s ruminations, which discusses the article A Symbiotic View of Life: We Have Never Been Individuals by the biologist Scott F. Gilbert, historian of biology Jan Sapp, and philosopher of science Alfred I. Tauber. There, the matter is put as follows:

From this vantage, there is no circumscribed, autonomous entity that is a priori designated “the self.” What counts as “self” is dynamic and context-dependent.

But with ‘I’ and ‘affect’ thus disentangled, the push to project the reason for ‘our anger’ into the object or person that has aroused it, of positing innate, essential characteristics—thinking of them as inherently inconsiderate, stupid, or even evil—disappears: the anger is just another fact of the world—real, obviously, but not any more some mysterious force that has taken hold of our ‘self’. The innate characteristics of others are shown to be just projections of our own affect—in Buddhist terms, this is the notion of ‘emptiness’.

It’s rather more like in the Disney movie Inside Out: there, the personifications of joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust vie for control of the behavior of a young girl, but a distinct self is nowhere to be found. So, we can acknowledge the existence of anger—without letting it take over the controls.

That doesn’t mean that the affects lose their motivating power. Bundled up with the anger is still the motivation to act accordingly. Likewise, bundled up with our love for our spouse is still the care for their well-being. These are, after all, real things in the world. But we’re no longer passive objects of the way our emotional winds blow us around; rather, we’re free to be truly self-governed, autonomous agents.

Of course, succeeding in realizing such freedom is a distant end-goal that is likely unattainable for all but the most dedicated students of contemplative practice, and even for them, may take years or decades. But we don’t typically evaluate any skill by its conceivable distant end-goal. We don’t think learning math is only worth it if eventually we solve the Riemann conjecture; we don’t climb rocks only to one day be able to take on Mount Everest. Even a little can go a long way—think of the difference between someone who knows how to add and someone who doesn’t, in terms of not being ripped off on the restaurant bill. Or think of the value of basic literacy: simply being able to read and write opens up entirely new worlds of experience and communication, without aiming for equaling Shakespeare. The same may well be true with basic contemplative competence—but unlike basic math or literacy, it’s just not a skill that’s widely taught.

Figure 6: The inward view from nowhere: weakening identification with a particular affect, the facts of the world can be appreciated more neutrally, without, however, negating the reality (and thus, motivating power) of the affects themselves.

So, in order to contravene the biasing nature of affect, I propose to adopt the inward view from nowhere. This view recognizes that we need not get swept up in our affects, because ultimately, there is no ‘I’ to get swept up in this way, and affects are themselves just a part of the world. (However, a word of caution: we should not see affects as just further facts, because first of all, that risks robbing them of their motivational power, and more importantly, makes them subject to further affectsas in when, during meditation, one gets annoyed with the way one’s anger influences perception. I believe that this is at least in part what the great Buddhist sage Nāgārjuna meant by the ‘emptiness of emptiness’ and his gnomic caution that ‘whoever makes a philosophical view out of “emptiness” is indeed lost’.)

This opens up, finally, a path to ‘enlightened’ collective action, which is not subject to the biases of affect (or, at any rate, less so). We start out in a state in which we considered ourselves as individual, isolated instances of life given form, as individual life-forms; as such, we stood helplessly before those problems threatening not just our individual, but our collective being, life itself. Against this, we saw that this view of life shattered into myriad pieces, each fending for itself, can be replaced by one that emphasizes the life’s continuity in all its forms, its individual manifestations being part of one and the same sprawling, multifaceted pattern. This shifts the locus of our concern from the individual to the whole. Thus, rather than our interest being pitted against that of others, we partake in the same unfolding of life, making actions directed against ‘other’ life as irrational as cutting off our own thumb; and, rather than isolated, microscopic grains of sand swept up in the tide, as life itself, we are equal to the cataclysms we’re faced with.

But this leaves the problem to not just view ourselves as unified, but act as one, as well. To grasp the world, the hand’s fingers must act in unison. Since we cannot rely on a central authority to hand down the right course of action, collective action must be rooted in each individual acting in accordance with the needs of all, which requires two things—as argued last time, faith that others will do likewise; but, just as importantly, a good reason to act. Reasons for action are never found in mere facts, but in how we care about the facts, how they affect us. But unmediated affect is untrustworthy—it biases and is too easily subverted. Thus, finally, the course for the individual to follow to yield synchronized, beneficial action at the collective level is one that involves at least a basic fluency in contemplative techniques to avoid becoming swept up in our affects, while taking advantage of their motivating power. In this vein, just as the swarm of mackerels takes action that originates with the individual for the benefit of the whole—and thus, again, that of the individual—I believe there is a way for humanity towards the sort of collective action desperately needed to avert the looming global crisis.