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. Read more »

Mindful Murmurations I: Common Knowledge And The Will To Believe

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: A murmuration of starlings: collective action creating realities at a larger scale—in this case, resembling a whale. Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash

In last month’s column, I argued for the notion that life does not neatly decompose into individual life-forms—fish, fungi, firs, and humans. Instead, we are all just part of the same life expressed in many bodies, the way the one life of the butterfly is expressed in the two bodies of the larva (the caterpillar) and the imago (the winged form we typically think of when talking about butterflies). The argument wasn’t intended to foster some kind of hand-holding-moment of ‘we’re all in this together’ (not just, at least), but instead, was meant to chip away at what I believe to be two of the greatest obstacles towards meaningful collective action in the face of global existential crisis: locality of concern and despair of scale.

By locality of concern, I don’t merely mean being of the opinion that everything revolves around one’s own particular affairs—although that may be an expression of it. Rather, I mean the notion that one’s reasons for action are mostly or wholly centered on one’s own experience within the world—and may thus be in opposition to that of others. The idea that we’re all part of the same life contravenes this, by for instance making harm to ‘other’ life a form of self-harm—something that’s not just morally wrong, as most might agree it is, but simply irrational, like cutting off a perfectly functional thumb—like the caterpillar trying to get back at the butterfly because it envies its ability to fly.

But I believe that the other factor, despair of scale, may be yet more damaging, and it is this that I’ll be concerned with here. Read more »