Friday, February 19, 2010

Adventures in Legal Land

Mid-2004 interview with Marc Stevens, anarcho-capitalist/voluntaryist/libertarian, author of "Adventures in Legal Land", and host of "The No State Project" (a weekly radio show discussing news and issues related to the law, courts, and personal liberty, with a particular interest in considering free-market alternatives to government-provided services). 

Marc's perspective is that the very concept of government is based on numerous dishonest and misleading labels and presumptions that amount to a complex public relations scheme. He has invited government supporters (including newsworthy politicians, lawyers, judges, reporters) to debate him on his radio show, stating that he wishes to focus only on "facts, not opinions" (he continues to observe that most of those invited have initially accepted, only to cancel at the last moment). 

Marc Steven has also acted as a legal consultant in various traffic, tax, and drug cases, but now primarily offers seminars discussing the concepts covered in his book, including role playing among partipicants. The interview in this video primarily focuses on these issues, i.e. the violent coercive nature of government, and how those in the justice system (esp. the courts) can and do contradict themselves when asked the most simple and reasonable questions. 

The video is from his website , where you can also find audio archives of dozens of other interviews, as well as numerous articles that help expose the reality that representative government is a fundamentally impossibility, for starters. Marc's "No State Project" is broadcast Saturdays on the Republic Broadcasting Network at (with previous episodes archived there as well)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Libertarian Socialism

Libertarian socialism

Encyclopedia of Political Information.
Libertarian socialism is a political philosophy dedicated to opposing what its advocates regard as illegitimate forms of authority and social hierarchy, most famously the institution of government. It has gone by various names: libertarian communism, anarcho-communism, left-anarchism, and, most commonly, anarchism. Libertarian socialists therefore believe in the abolition of privately held means of production and abolition of the state as an unnecessary and harmful institution (anarchism/libertarianism).


Libertarian socialists usually call themselves anarchists except when necessary to disambiguate or disassociate themselves with others who use the same term. Libertarian socialism should not be confused with libertarianism either: the two philosophies are only alike in their professed love of liberty and in their opposition to statism, hence the similarity in name. In this article, the terms libertarian socialism, libertarian communism, anarcho-communism, left-anarchism and anarchism are used as synonyms.
The basic philosophy of libertarian socialism is summed up in the name: adherents believe that management of the common good (socialism) is necessary, but that this should be done in a manner that preserves individual liberty and avoids concentration of power or authority (libertarianism). Some libertarian socialists say individual liberty and societal harmony are necessarily antagonistic, and anarchist philosophy must balance the two. Others feel that the two are symbiotic, and that the liberty of the individual guarantees the harmony of the society and vice-versa.
All the critiques that anarchists develop are based on principles of decentralization of power and authority. So, while anarchists have a critique of capitalism similar to Marxism, the basis for opposition to capitalism is that it leads to concentration of power (in the form of wealth). This critique highlights the distinction between libertarian socialists and Libertarians: libertarian socialists advocate freedom while denying, to a greater or lesser extent, the legitimacy of private property, since private property in the form of capital leads to the exploitation of others with lesser economic power, and thus infringes on the exploited class's individual freedoms. Libertarians, by contrast, believe that liberty is impossible without the enforced protection of private property.


Libertarian socialists differentiate between the idea of authority based on power, and authority based on knowledge or skills. The term "power", in this instance, refers to the social or physical dominance of one individual over another. They oppose "illegitimate" authority based on economic and political power, and social hierarchy -- some believe that all authority based on political and economic power, and hierarchy is illegitimate.
Libertarian socialists believe that all social bonds should be developed by individuals who have an equal amount of barganing power. This means that an accumulation of economic power in the hands of a few is no different than the centralization of political power, since both reduce the barganing power, and thus the freedom of the other individuals in society. If freedom is valued, then society must work towards a system in which individuals have the power to decide economic issues along with political issues. They seek to replace illegitimate authority and hierarchy with direct democracy and voluntary federation in all aspects of life, including physical communities and economic enterprises.
Libertarian socialists believe that productive property should be held communally and controlled democratically. For them, the only moral private properties are personal possessions.
Unlike anarcho-capitalists, anarchists believe there is little to no difference between threat of physical violence as a means of coercion and political or economic coercion. Thus the libertarian socialist argues that the anarcho-capitalist distiction between economic coercion, which they allow by the centralized accumulation of productive property and wealth, and physical corecion is an untenable dichotomy. Freedom only comes from a society in which all have equal barganing power.
Within the socialist libertarian movement there is much debate about the exact delineation between moral "personal" possesions and immoral "productive" property. Most agree that hard capital such as real estate, machinery, etc., should be considered "productive" property, while one's lodging and clothing should be considered "personal" property. Disagreement arises about the proper way to characterize property such as one's home when it is used to carry out business, for example. Adherents of capitalism or Austrian economics would argue that the distinction between "personal" and "productive" property is specious, and that consequently such paradoxes are doomed to arise regardless of the delineation chosen.

Opposition to the state

Anarchists are most famous for opposing the existence of states or government. Indeed, in the past many anarchists refused to defend themselves in court because they did not wish to participate in what they viewed as illegitimate institutions, instead choosing to go to jail or die.
The critique of states is built on the same principle opposing concentration of authority based on power, which according to anarchists inevitably leads to abuse.
In lieu of states, libertarian socialists seek to organize themselves into voluntary institutions (usually called collectives or syndicates) which use direct democracy or to higher-level federations. Others, however, have advanced strong critiques of federated systems, and these federations have rarely been carried out in practice. (For an example of anarchist federations, see Spanish anarchism.)
Contrary to popular opinion, libertarian socialism has not traditionally been a utopian movement, tending to avoid dense theoretical analysis or prediction of what a future society would or should look like. The tradition instead has been that such decisions cannot be made now, and must be made through struggle and experimentation, so that the best solution can be arrived at democratically and organically, and to base the direction for struggle on established historical example.
Anarchists often suggest that this focus on exploration over predetermination is one of their great strengths. They point out that the success of science at explaining the natural world comes from its methods, not its conclusions, and its adherence to open rational exploration; while traditional dogmatic explanations of naturalistic phenomena have proved almost useless at explaining anything in the natural world. Critics counter that by refusing to explain how certain aspects of society would function under their system, anarchists are essentially avoiding questions that they cannot answer. Anarchists reply to this, by stating that no one knows the best way to produce a certian outcome within society, and that a methodilogical approach to exploration is the best way to achieve our social goals. To an anarchist dogmatic approaches to social organization are just as doomed to failure as are non-scientific explanations of natural phenomena.

Political roots

As Albert Meltzer and Stuart Christie put it in their book The Floodgates of Anarchy, anarchism
has its particular inheritance, part of which it shares with socialism, giving it a family resemblance to certain of its enemies. Another part of its inheritance it shares with liberalism, making it, at birth, Kissing-cousins with American-type Radical individualism, a large part of which has married out of the family into the Right Wing and is no longer on speaking terms. (The Floodgates of Anarchy, 1970, page 39.)

Conflict with Marxism

In rejecting property and the state, libertarian socialists put themselves in opposition to both capitalist democracy and to Marxism. Although Anarchists and Marxists share a belief in an the ultimate goal of a stateless society, Anarchists criticized Marxism for advocating a transitional phase under which the state is used to achieve this aim. Historically the movement has often been ignored in the much more visible conflict between Marxism-Leninism and capitalism. Anarchist movements have come into conflict with both capitalist and Marxist forces, sometimes at the same time, as in the Spanish Civil War. Other political persecutions under either party have resulted in a strong historical antagonism between anarchists and Leninist Marxists (and their descendants, i.e. Maoists). In recent history, however, anarchists have repeatedly formed alliances with Marxist-Leninist groups.
The antagonism can be traced to the International Workingmen's Association (or the First International), a congress of radical workers, where Mikhail Bakunin, who was fairly representative of the libertarian socialist view, and Karl Marx, whom anarchists accused of being an authoritarian, came into conflict on various issues. Bakunin's viewpoint on the illegitimacy of the State as an institution and the role of electoral politics was starkly counterposed to Marx's views in the First International. Marx and Bakunin's disputes eventually led to Marx taking control of the First International and expelling Bakunin and his followers from the organization. This was the beginning of a long-running feud between anarchists and what they call "authoritarian communists" (or sometimes just "authoritarians").
Some Marxists have formulated views that closely resembled syndicalism, and thus expressed more affinity with anarchist ideas. The American Marxist leader Daniel De Leon, for example, who joined and reorganized the Socialist Labor Party in 1890, advocated a form of "industrial unionism" (known as DeLeonism), which was similar to syndicalism, although De Leon himself made a point of distinguishing between the two ideologies.
Several libertarian socialists, notably Noam Chomsky, believe that anarchism shares much in common with certain variants of Marxism such as the council communism of left-wing Marxist Anton Pannekoek. In Chomsky's "Notes on Anarchism", he suggests the possibility "that some form of council communism is the natural form of Revolutionary socialism in an industrial society. It reflects the intuitive understanding that democracy is severely limited when the industrial system is controlled by any form of autocratic elite, whether of owners, managers and technocrats, a "vanguard" party, or a state bureaucracy."
Autonomist marxism and situationism are also regarded as being Anti-authoritarian variants of Marxism that closely resemble libertarian socialism.

Philosophical arguments

Anarcho-communism is a sub-category of anarchism which emphasizes the collective experience as distinct and important in the pursuit of freedom. All forms of Anarchism recognize the experience of collective identity to some extent, but the Anarcho-Communists, starting with Peter Kropotkin and extending out through Alexander Berkman, Nestor Makhno, and many others recognized that there was more to experiences which were less individualistic than meets the eye.
Implicitly, the Anarcho-Communists followed a Kantian scheme of classification: like Kant they divided life into its individualistic parts, which have a parallel with Kant's Pure Reason, and the less obvious parts of life which characterize our relations to one another, which parallels Kant's Practical Reason. To put it bluntly: no matter how autonomous we might be to ourselves when we're alone, once we start interacting with the world and with other people it seems as though another set of rules forces itself on us.
This follows from our biology. The parts of life that Kant singled out in his work on Practical Reason are not well understood by people. How does the experience of work actually feel? What do we actually think when we work? Because of some sort of biological limitation when people deal with these aspects of life they tend to resort to using obscure and abstract metaphors and analogies to explain what they're talking about.
This is where the difference between Anarchism and Anarcho-Communism shows up most clearly: the Anarcho-Communists have taken on these hard to explain aspects of life, have desired to understand them, and have integrated strategies for liberation involving these aspects of life into their overall point of view.
The catch with these aspects of life is that while mental liberation might be amazing, becoming aware of the collective substructure of life and society leads to deeper liberation than is commonly thought possible.
So in this respect the Anarcho-Communists are different because they see themselves as pursuing a fuller definition of liberation than others.
It should be pointed out that the Anarcho-Communist conventions aren't limited to their little ghetto; the dialectical thought of the revolutionary Marxists associated with Lenin and the Third International, which stressed experience and consciousness as opposed to taking a strictly economistic view of things, uses the same rudiments of thought in order to describe how classes arise and what class consciousness is.
The source of all of this is a combination of 19th century Romantic philosophy, in particularly Hegel (in addition to Kant) and Schelling, and the uniqueness of rural Russian communities, which, at the end of Europe, possessed a backwardness which was purer than the cultivated consciousness of the European heartland. But this gets into too much history.

The importance of force 

Many anarchists see violent revolution as necessary in the creation of an anarchist society. Along with many others, Errico Malatesta argued that the use of violence was necessary in creating an anarchist society; as he put it in Umanità Nova:
It is our aspiration and our aim that everyone should become socially conscious and effective; but to achieve this end, it is necessary to provide all with the means of life and for development, and it is therefore necessary to destroy with violence, since one cannot do otherwise, the violence which denies these means to the workers.[1]
But is violence necessary in maintaining such a society? Some people feel that anarcho-communism could only be sustained by the use of force -- many of these individuals argue that capitalist enterprises would spring up in such a society unless they were suppressed. These critics see this as an inherent contradiction within socialistic anarchist theory: they feel that anarchism could not be sustained without coercion, but if coercion were used, it would not be anarchism.
Most of anarchism's adherents will start by arguing that it is force that maintains current capitalist economics and all forms of government -- the basis of the argument being that hierarchal relationships ultimately rest on force. Certainly, there are few, if any, anarchists who think that violence should play a role in a future society. Some anarchists, who have been called anarcho-pacifists, reject violence altogether.

Historical Origins

Pre-"anarchism" libertarians

Although anarchism is generally considered to be a development in Western philosophical and political thought, some would disagree. Rejection of coercive authority can be traced as far back as . In fact, similar rejections of authority can probably be found in every society, if one looks hard enough; whether or not they are anarchist is a question for debate. Anarcho-primitivists assert that for the longest period of human history, human society was organised on anarchist principles. However their critics claim that such a projection of their abstract principles is simply an adaptation of the mainstream project of western value systems onto the rest of the world. In the West, an anti-authoritarian tendency can be traced to Ancient Greece, with philosophers like Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic philosophy, who was, according to Peter Kropotkin, "[t]he best exponent of Anarchist philosophy in ancient Greece". Zeno distinctly opposed his vision of a free community without government to the state-Utopia of Plato. "He repudiated the omnipotence of the state, its intervention and regimentation, and proclaimed the sovereignty of the moral law of the individual." Zeno argued that although the necessary instinct of Self-preservation leads humans to Egotism, nature has supplied a corrective to it by providing man with another instinct -- sociability. Like many modern anarchists, he believed that if people follow their instincts, they will have no need of law-courts or police, no temples and no public worship, and use no money (free gifts taking the place of the exchanges). Zeno's beliefs, however, have only reached us as fragmentary quotations[3].
There were also movements such as the Free Spirit in the Middle Ages.
In fact, some anarchists assert that anarchism is not so much a movement as an historical tendency; indeed, Bakunin saw thought and rebellion as the principal tenets of human nature as well as of anarchism. However, there was certainly no coherent ideology that called itself "anarchism" until the nineteenth century, when anarchism -- then often referred to simply as "Revolutionary Socialism" -- emerged as the libertarian side of the growing socialist and communist movements of that period.

Anarchism: a new word

Most of the labor movements of the time were fiercely anti-capitalist, and the resulting organisations produced many utopian visions for how they wished to transform society. Anarchism developed and flourished in this environment, and had a profound mutual relationship with labor movements until well into the 20th century. Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian aristocrat and the intellectual heir of Pierre Joseph Proudhon (who adopted the term anarchist in its modern political meaning) was the first major proponent of the philosophy of libertarian socialism. Bakunin summarized the philosophy: "We are convinced that freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice, and that Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality." Bakunin's conflict with Marx (discussed above under Conflict with Marxism) was the most visible and well-known split between "authoritarians" and "libertarians" to take place in the nineteenth century working class movement. Some people maintain that Bakunin's conspiratorial organisational techniques reveal an authoritarian structure behind a libertarian gloss.
The next major step in the development of libertarian socialism came with Peter Kropotkin, another Russian aristocrat who expounded a philosophy that he dubbed "anarchist communism". His writings included The Conquest of Bread and Fields, Factories and Workshops. Kropotkin gave up his nobility and refused the offered position of secretary of an important geographical society on moral grounds. He traveled across the world, using his training as a geographer to catalog productivity, and concluded that an admirable lifestyle could be achieved for all with only five hours of work per day for part of your adult life. He also elaborated an idea called mutual aid, which he believed humans were naturally driven towards.

The spread of ideas: anarchism's influence

Since the 19th century, anarchist ideas have spread through the labor movement, and influenced many radicals and revolutions. In the Russian Revolution, after the overthrow of the tsarist state, many revolutionary movements sprang up all throughout the collapsing Russian Empire. Notable amongst these was an anarchist peasant movement in the Ukraine, usually known as the Makhnovists due to the influence of Nestor Makhno, an anarchist peasant/general. The Makhnovists organized resistance against the White counter-revolution, and later on against the consolidation of power by the Bolsheviks, but were eventually crushed.
Mexican Revolution - The revolutionary period in Mexico was an extended period usually considered to have begun with the overthrow of the dictator Porfirio Diaz and the installation of the moderate Francisco Madero. Instrumental in this transfer of power were the likes of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, a mestizo peasant from the state of Morelos. Zapata and his followers, the Zapatistas, mostly Mayan Indians, advocated for a program of radical land reform under the slogan "Tierra y Libertad", or "Land and Liberty". This demand, laid out roughly in the Zapatista's Plan de Ayala, sought to break up the large landholdings (fincas) which maintained power in the hands of the landlords (finqueros) and kept the Indian peasants chained into a system of lifelong debt slavery (peonage). This Zapatista movement was eventually augmented by intellectuals from Mexico City, including the anarchist Antonio Diaz Soto Y Gama and the brothers Jesus and Ricardo Flores Magon (who coined the phrase "Land & Liberty" that Zapata adopted). These intellectuals, more articulate than the illiterate peasants (probably including Zapata himself) became the voice for the Zapatista movement. Zapata quickly broke with Madero, who he felt was not moving quickly enough in the area of land reform, and continued to fight his government and the successive governments of Victoriano Huerta and Venustiano Carranza. Madero, Huerta and Carranza fought each other for control of the Mexican state, but all agreed that Zapata was a thorn that had to be removed. Eventually, after many years of fighting, Carranza succeeded in having Zapata assassinated (on April 10, 1917), and subduing the Zapatista forces.
Especially significant in the worldwide anarchist movement was the anarchist activity in Spain which reached a peak during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and resulted from many decades of anarchist agitation and education. The vibrant and widespread support for anarchism resulted in a social revolution that occurred alongside the fight against Fascist forces. During the civil war, the anti-fascist forces were comprised of various factions including communists and anarchists. Anarchist groups controlled both territory and factories for a time during the war, especially in Catalonia. Fights broke out between the communists and anarchist in some cities, culminating in the . Though the Fascists won and the anarchists came into conflict with the fascist rebels, liberal democrats and authoritarian communists, many fled overseas (especially to France) and helped bring anarchist ideas to labor movements around the world.
Labour organisations such as the CNT have often been the focus point of anarchist activity. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or "Wobblies") were an anarcho-syndicalist labor union that was prominent in labor struggles in early 20th century America. They advocated the formation of "one big union" comprised of all workers everywhere. The IWW made use of militant tactics in order to effect their demands for improvement in worker's conditions, including sabotage, and popularized the "wildcat strike", a sudden, unannounced work stoppage, as a means of fighting. While they never advocated straight out violence, they were clear in their intent to defend themselves if attacked, and fought back with force against policemen and Pinkerton security guards. The Wobblies were unabashedly revolutionary (as many labor unions were at the time) and saw their struggle for worker's rights only as a tool towards the eventual worker takeover of factories that the syndicalists envisioned at the time. They were racially inclusive, recognizing that black workers and white workers faced the same oppression (in a time when many labor unions were exclusive). They faced fierce resistance, both from the bosses themselves and from the federal government, particularly during the time of the Palmer Raids. This resistance, and the slow process of attrition of revolutionary potential as labor unions forced concessions from the capitalists, reduced the IWW to tatters by the early twenties. They still survive in some form and are organizing workers to this day. Their website is here.

Other prominent libertarian socialists include:
  • Alan Albon (Freedom anarchist fortnightly, Green Anarchist)
  • Murray Bookchin
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Voltairine de Cleyre (1866 - 1912)
  • Crass (punk rock band formed by an anarchist collective involved with the Dial House community in Essex, England)
  • Buenaventura Durruti
  • William Godwin
  • Emma Goldman
  • Paul Goodman
  • Kotoku Shusui (prominent Japanese anarchist)
  • Peter Neville
  • Vernon Richards (Freedom anarchist fortnightly)
  • Rudolf Rocker
  • Colin Ward (Freedom anarchist fortnightly)
  • Errico Malatesta

Further reading


  • Anarchism, George Woodcock (Penguin Books, 1962) (For many years the classic introduction, until in part superseded by Harper's 'Anarchy - A Graphic Guide')
  • Anarchy - A Graphic Guide, Clifford Harper (Camden Press, 1987) (An excellent overview, updating Woodcock's classic, and beautifully illustrated throughout by Harper's woodcut-style artwork)
  • The Anarchist Reader, George Woodcock (Ed.) (Fontana/Collins 1977) (An anthology of writings from anarchist thinkers and activists including Proudhon, Kropotkin, Bakunin, Bookchin, Emma Goldman and many others.)
  • The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (a 1974 science fiction novel that takes place on a planet with an anarchist society; winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Award for best novel.)


The Zen of Social Action

The Zen of Social Action

Ken H Jones

1. The Privatisation of the Dharma

Buddhism comes to Westerners as a monkish other worldly religion of meditation embedded in a culture of monasticism. It brings with it all the assumptions of a traditional hierarchical culture where society and nature were perceived as an unchanging back drop to the human condition. Public virtues enjoined upon ‘householders’ (and even rulers), charitable action, right livelihood and just rule, were about personal behaviour confined within the the established order. Monastics were honoured by lay support precisely because they were ‘purer’, not engaged in the pursuit of wealth and fame like everyone else. Monastics generally supported the existing social order. For Zen, this meant, successively, the aristocracy, samurai dictators, imperial militarists, and latterly, the corporate business establishment(1). Westerners who approach Buddhism swim in a very different culture, an intensely individualistic culture with a social milieu utterly different from that in which the teachings originated. These circumstances present the lay practitioner with two unique kinds of work, the first ‘inner’ and the second ‘outer’.
Personhood for the traditional oriental, as for the medieval Western individual, tended to be made meaningful through social context, whether it be occupation, hierarchical grade, caste, corporate membership or geographical community. In 1486, in his Oration on the Dignity of Man, Pico della Mirandolla proclaimed the arrival of the free, self-defining individual thus starting the trend to individual rather than collective sensibility. Three hundred years later the Rights of Man were proclaimed,sounding the death knell of the ancient culture of communally rooted responsibilities. The collective virtues of acceptance, humility and restraint rapidly disappeared from view. After another two hundred more years of this high egoic era (as Ken Wilber calls it), this free and demanding individualism - of an affluent minority - has accumulated enough wealth, developed enough technology, and dissolved sufficient constraining norms and institutions to be able to enjoy the utmost ‘personalised convenience’. It might be the ready convenience of switching on television or switching to another partner when the first - and the kids - become too tiresome. Just about everything can be individually fixed except mortality.
The progress of this individualism is associated with the widening split between the public and the private. The public is the outer, rational ‘masculine’ world of the economy, politics, war and peace. The private is the world of the psyche, the emotions, spirituality, the arts, the ‘feminine’ - all subordinate and suspect. Encouraged by the demise of the great value-sustaining secular myths of our time, socialism and communism, and likewise of the Welfare State, privatisation of the public has become intense. Associated with the decline of civic pride and enterprise and indeed of civil society itself, the public realm has been crushed between the upper and nether millstones of State and Market, the latter becoming increasingly narcissistic and turned in upon itself.
Individualism is associated also with the sense of a loss of social relevance, a personal alienation, which has increasingly marked the past hundred years of Western culture. In the search for ever greater individual freedom Westerners have dissolved all those personal, social and ecological restraints, reciprocities and responsibilities which were the sources of collective support and security. Eco-social crisis and the widespread crisis of personal identity and meaning are ultimately one and the same. Alienated individuals seek an intensely individualistic spirituality with a functional sensibility, ‘fast food’ expectations and an obsession with achievement which reifies enlightenment. This stubborn and rootless individualism makes community (or even playing at community) difficult for many Westerners. The high pressure inner/outer crisis may lead to ‘spirituality’ as a last hope for finding meaning and security. Yet at every point there is antithesis to the assumptions of oriental monasticism. Perhaps a hundred years from now we shall better appreciate what a bizarre Western creature it was that began to take an interest in Buddhist spirituality - of all things! Our deeply conditioned assumptions could hardly be more different from those of the world of Shakyamuni Buddha, or of Zen Master Dogen.
I conclude that the practitioner of lay Zen or any other kind of Western spirituality has a special and urgent need to become fully aware of these Western assumptions in order no longer to be unconsciously governed by them. This is a process which, in my experience, can occur quite naturally in the course of traditional practice, but the more readily if both student and teacher are socially knowledgeable (this being one of the advantages of an aware Western teacher). This is a dimension of the Westerner’s ‘inner work’ which has received little discussion. Moreover, the monastic tradition has, understandably, virtually nothing to say about it. For example, as a European reading in American Buddhist journals of attempts to respond to problems arising along the Western/Oriental, lay/monastic interface, I have often been struck by a seeming unawareness of how culture-specific, how American, such responses can themselves be. This or that characteristic American response may or may not be the most appropriate, but how can we know as long as we are inside its American-ness?
The second historic task for the lay Western practitioner follows from the first. This is the ‘outer work’ of shaping a new social culture which is informed by spiritual insight and manifests it in its social norms and institutions. Although this is a radical conservative perspective which retains and transforms all the supportive and compatible achievements of, yes, the high egoic era, I none the less see monasticism as a perennial stabilising force, whatever outward changes it may undergo.

2. The Outer Project: Social Activism Encounters Buddhism

Over the past five hundred years Western society has become increasingly complex, dynamic and fluid. Its development can be and has been substantially affected by government policies and social and political movements which are a part of the process. There is a general assumption that it is possible to remedy and even abolish poverty, exploitation and the injustices of gender, class, and race. In spite of this often unthinking optimism, acquisitive industrial growth has now begun to undermine the planetary ecosystem itself. We face an ecological crisis which arguably can only be resolved by radical social changes on a global scale. In looking at the Western interest in Buddhism I am struck by the gap between the great secular, humanistic movements of our time and an ancient monastic Sangha specialising in wisdom and insight. What are the implications then, for a lay spirituality founded on such a monasticism?
In the West, and particularly in the United States, ‘engaged Buddhism’ has become widely acceptable, though it is still not well understood (2). It questions both the quietism of Eastern monasticism and the privatised Buddhism of the West, and is undoubtedly the most noteworthy achievement to date of modern lay Buddhism, and particularly of the American Zen communities. It is significant that the communiqué from a four day meeting in March 1993 between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and twenty-two Western Buddhist teachers, declared that ‘Our first responsibility as Buddhists is to work towards creating a better world for all forms of life. The promotion of Buddhism is a secondary concern.’
Understandably it is in the Buddhist countries of the East that the potential of engaged Buddhism is most fully demonstrated, in a variety of lay Buddhist movements. Sarvodaya is an extensive grass-roots self-help movement in Sri Lanka. Out of the struggle of Vietnam’s Unified Buddhist Church for peace, social justice, and religious freedom, Thich Nhat Hanh and his Tiep Hien Order have developed as an influential international movement. The opposition to the brutal military dictatorship in Burma is essentially both a lay and a monastic Buddhist movement. Thailand is the centre of a variety of engaged Buddhist initiatives inspired by Sulak Sivaraksa, most notably the remarkable International Network of Engaged Buddhists. A wide variety of (mostly lay) New Buddhist Movements concerned with world peace and social welfare flourish in Japan and exercise a significant influence in national life. In Japan there have been a number of Zen writers and teachers who stood out against the endorsement of Japanese imperial militarism by mainstream Zen monasticism. One of the heroes of this dissident tradition was Ichikawa Gudo, a Soto monk executed in 1911 for his opposition to the demands of the imperial regime. In the post-war period Ichikawa Hakugen, a Zen priest and university professor condemned Zen’s collusion in Japanese aggression in books like The War Responsibility of Buddhists (1970)(1). For the purposes of our present enquiry the most significant proponent of an engaged Zen is Hisamatsu Shin’ichi (1889-1980). Hisamatsu was a Zen practitioner and university professor who founded a lay Zen organisation and devoted himself to a critique of monastic Zen: as has been the case with Zen, activity starts and ends only with the so-calledpractice of compassion involved in helping others to awaken, such activity will remain unrelated to the formation of the world or the creation of history, isolated from the world and history, and in the end turn Zen into a forest Buddhism, temple Buddhism, at best a Zen-monastery Buddhism. Ultimately this becomes “Zen within a ghostly cave"’ (3).
Hisamatsu rejected monastic Zen as outmoded, advocated a ‘Zen for all people’, and did not regard a direct relationship with a master as absolutely necessary. In these respects he differs from most lay advocates of engaged Buddhism in both East and West. Engaged Buddhism also tackles the current questions and controversies in our society with regard to gender, race and class. It is troubled by the spectacle of a Sangha so exclusively able-bodied, white, and middle class, practising within a patriarchal tradition. The (American) Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s journal Turning Wheel has devoted whole issues to such questions. Yet I cannot recall reading any similar discussion on English social class. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that there are working class would-be Buddhists who are alienated by the middle class tone of many British Buddhist organisations and centres (the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order is one notable exception). My informants found the insulated ‘niceness’ and the ‘smug intellectualism’ offensive and, more seriously, the teaching coming from an outlook and lifestyle remote from those of working class people. Since similar class barriers have been seen as a problem in other walks of life it would be unwise to dismiss them here. Raising awareness of our own previously unconscious social identities, and the message they send to others, could undoubtedly be a ‘skilful means’ (upaya).

3. The Scriptural Approach to Engaged Buddhism

The eco-socially engaged Buddhism of activism and service can be approached in terms of scripture, intellect and insight. The scriptural approach involves selecting and interpreting relevant scripture, including the moral precepts. Now that all the world’s religions are being required to present their green credentials(4), it has been most recently employed to demonstrate the ecological relevance of Buddhism. Although the scriptural approach provides a useful introduction, it has serious very different from our own, and in any case the amount of traditional socially engaged scripture is quite small, for reasons noted earlier. Secondly, Buddhism is not a religion of the Book; its scriptures are at best a verbalising of insight aimed at guiding and inspiring those who are seeking insight. They have an indicative authority, but it is intended that you should find out the truth for yourself.
My third reservation is that, in the absence of the other two approaches (below), it is only too easy to read our own cultural values into scripture, as also into monastic practice. The Buddha becomes an early human rights champion, the monastic Sangha a model of propertyless democracy, and Ashoka validates the Welfare State. Instead of Dharma changing contemporary perceptions and aspirations it is simply appropriated in order to reinforce them. Such unconscious secularisation is a typical hazard to be found in the laity’s inherent concern to ‘update’ the monastic Dharma and make it more ‘relevant’. An opposite example, where it is Dharma which informs our contemporary situation, is to be found in the precepts of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Tiep Hien Order. Thus, ‘Right Livelihood’ is interpreted as ‘Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. Do not invest in companies which deprive others of their chance of life. Select a vocation which helps to realise your idea of compassion’(5).

4. The Intellectual Approach

The intellectual (Buddhological) approach seeks to develop a theory of socially engaged Buddhism by amplifying the Buddhist diagnosis and remedy for the human condition in terms of our understanding of contemporary society.
Like other world religions, Buddhism has traditionally been limited by very simplistic social theory and assumptions. Only comparatively recently has society become sufficiently dynamic and complex to stimulate the development of adequate explanatory social theory. From the time of our birth we each respond not only in a personal sense to the precariousness of our human condition, but also as inheritors of delusive social institutions and shared meanings about the world. The ideologies of ‘us’ and ‘them’, of good and evil, which bestride our world tend to be experienced as reality itself rather than as the alienating projections of the insecure and fearful beings that we are. ‘The world grasps after systems’, observed the Buddha, ‘and is imprisoned by dogmas’ (6). Particular beliefs, feelings and behaviours tend to become ingrained as dispositional tendencies (samskaras) which shape our character and our future for better or worse. There is, however, nothing retributive, judgmental or fatalistic about this karmic momentum and we do have the capacity to modify it or even break free from it. A striking example which is both personal and social is the consumermentality (green or otherwise) which drives millions of people beyond all reasonable need and ultimately towards ecological breakdown. To paraphrase Marx, we do make our own history, but not of our own accord or under self-chosen conditions, but under given and transmitted conditions. The situation of a society at any given point in its history, is the amplified resultant of the interacting karma of all its past and present members. Thus the great institutions which embody the aggressiveness, acquisitiveness and divisiveness of Buddha’s ‘Three Fires’ appear to take on a life of their own, entrapping in ‘the system’ even those reluctant to meet its demands. In the Over-Developed World millions of kindly people accept ‘ordinary’ lifestyles and an economic system which are both unnecessary and hugely destructive both ecologically and in relation to Third World peoples. We are entrained in a headlong global karma which repeatedly overwhelms such good intentions as the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit.
A further example of social karma is the way in which violence breeds violence. The acquisitiveness of the powerful is expressed through social institutions and public policies which create conditions of ‘structural violence’ against the dignity of the disempowered and their freedom to shape tolerable lives for themselves (unemployment, homelessness, chronic ill-health, erosion of welfare support and so on). Structural violence provokes criminal violence, culminating in a climate of violence which eventually entrains even children as rapists and murderers while creating a deprived underclass.
The well-informed bodhisattva has a much more difficult and radical undertaking demanded of him or her than limiting herself to giving everyone a big smile, using bio-friendly washing-up liquid and radiating good vibes to distant prisoners of conscience.
Without reservation she strives to respond to the three great moral imperatives of our time - to heal the violated planet, and to enable both the underclass at home (one in five of the population) and the wretched of the earth to win dignity and freedom. To the traditional Buddhist task of calming the mind is added that of employing it to transform and dismantle social systems and processes which supercharge the suffering of humanity as well as encompassing the ruin of the planet and its creatures. Without the inner work we become part of the problem rather than part of the solution, as the history of communism has so tragically demonstrated and as the history of capitalism is on headlong course to demonstrate in an infinitely greater tragedy. As Mahatma Gandhi observed, the belief (whether of Lenin or Adam Smith) that we can devise a social system so perfect that no one will need to be good, is one of the great delusions of our time. But without the outer work the inner work cannot be socially manifested on the scale that is now required.
The good society which enables its citizens to nourish themselves spiritually as well as socially and materially needs continually to be created in the present, step by step. Ecotopias are at best no more than skilful means, and carry the constant danger of ideological petrification. Two perspectives are on offer, the one monastic and hierarchical, the other lay and democratic.
On the one hand the tradition of the Dhamma Rajah, the spiritually enlightened absolute ruler, has inspired the ‘Dhammic socialism’ propounded by the famous Thai monastic teacher Ajahn Buddhadassa (with overtones of Plato’s Republic) (7). William Ophuls, an American Buddhist political ecologist, takes a similar though more reluctant view, but from a Hobbesian standpoint(8). At the other extreme are those, like the compilers of the 1984 Green Buddhist Declaration, who propose a libertarian socialist vision of a confederal, non-violent, mutualistic, grass roots polity founded on E F Schumacher’s ‘Buddhist economics’(9). I share the view that the power of the increasingly centralised State, and the greed of the free market sustained by it, are incompatible with the stable steady state economy which ecological harmony requires, and with the degree of social justice and egalitarianism necessary to sustain such an economy. The Buddhist, Christian and Humanist metta (‘loving kindness’) required to cement a Green commonwealth will need to be nurtured by individual and group ‘inner work’ as a lifestyle norm. It will also require a civil society of communities wherein social, ecological and spiritual responsibilities figure as prominently as rights. In such a society the monastic tradition could once more exert a stabilising influence. Though few in numbers, Buddhists are peculiarly well placed to play a valuable part in realising such a scenario.
A contemporary paradox concerns the monastic-style discipline and absolute authority of traditional spiritual teachers in contrast to modern lay people who value their democratic and egalitarian secular culture. Americans in recent years have been moved to invoke that culture in order to safeguard against the abuses of power which have shaken many Buddhist centre teachers’ sexual misconduct with their students, abuse of alcohol and drugs, misappropriation of funds and abuse of power. Lay pressure has modified the traditional monastic absolutism with codes of practice, complaints procedures, arbitration and lay management boards. Here as elsewhere the balance is shifting from lay subordination to lay partnership. (See article by Stuart Lachs in the last issue of New Ch’an Forum.)
The social diagnosis outlined in this section needs to be experienced as profound awareness, and then there will be no hesitation in acting out the prescription from the ground of our being. Hisamatsu emphasised ‘the unity of academic study and religious practice’. ‘It is not the objective and impartial study of ethical, philosophical or religious phenomena, but gaining knowledge of how to 'live' morality, philosophy and religion that must be the essential concern’(10). Seng-ts’an, the Third Zen Patriarch (c.AD600) reminds us that:
‘The more you talk about it, the more you think about it, the further from it you go. Put an end to wordiness and intellection and there is nothing you will not understand’(11).

5. The Insight Approach

Although all three approaches are needed, the cultivation of insight is the one that goes to the heart of a socially engaged Buddhism. Apart from some specialised concerns such as meditation and non-violent action, the practice is simply the classic awareness of mindfulness, moving through the three phases of awareness, ‘acceptance’ and ‘empowerment’. Through this practice we become aware of the impulses underlying our thoughts, feelings and behaviour, driven by our root rage, fear and insecurity. We become aware of how we shape a self-serving reality which creates suffering for ourselves and others and which disables appropriate action. Such awareness in itself begins to change the way we experience reality. The world begins to look a different place, and we also begin to act differently.
Awareness can be focused helpfully ‘where the shoe pinches’ - that is on some specific discomfiture which can provide some workable practice in awareness whether or not we choose to formulate it as a specific question or koan. It will not let us rest, whether it be some nagging irritant or our own mortality, or the latest bloody minded episode in some part of the world or other, or our despair at feeling unable to do anything about the ruin of our planet. We so much want things to accord with our desire. If we are in a helping role, for example, we want to feel that we are able to help (and we may enjoy feeling virtuous and maybe somehow superior to the poor wretch who needs our help).
As well as such focusing, the practice requires also an all-round ‘bare awareness’ (Krishnamurti’s term) which continually clarifies perception, both of our emotional states, (whether oceanic or volcanic), and an uninterrupted view of what is actually happening out there. Clarity is enhanced by sessions of formal meditation and retreat. Arguably, this is what meditation is really for.
As awareness deepens it may bring not only frustration but total despair as we are exposed to more truth than we can sustain, coming up against the powerlessness of the small, alienated self. This is the sharp end of Hisamatsu’s ‘fundamental koan which includes all traditional koans, and which has particular relevance for spiritual action and service: Right now, if nothing you do is of any avail, what will you do? This, for example, is the end of the line for a would-be helper who realises s/he really doesn’t have any ‘answer’ to the predicament of a suicidal person.
Sooner or later, given sufficiently sustained practice, awareness will flip over into ‘acceptance’: we give up struggling to maintain how we want it to be and how our society has conditioned us to see it. ‘Acceptance’ is here used in a special sense in two respects. First, it is not ‘I’ accepting, usually grudgingly, but rather some falling away of the self’s insistence on how it should be. Secondly, the activist is not accepting the evils against which s/he has so long struggled; s/he is accepting the undeniable reality of those evils, which are henceforward to be met without evasion and distortion. ‘Formless form’, as Hisamatsu calls it, is thus freed to respond appropriately and unreservedly to the demands of the situation, and can indeed do no other. This is experienced as a liberative release, an ‘empowerment’ which is the opposite of self-empowerment. Freed of doubt and anxiety, here all actions do ‘avail’. At this point the delusion of a privatised Dharma is exposed. The liberation of self and the liberation of others are seen as inseparable.
Engaged Buddhism is the daily actualisation of the boddhisattva vow chanted in Zen monasteries: ‘Sentient beings are innumerable, I vow to save them.’ This ‘inconceivable liberation’ is expressed by Kenneth White, our finest living European Zen poet, as follows (from his long poem Walking the Coast)
‘knowing now that the life at which I aim is a circumference continually expanding through sympathy and understanding rather than an exclusive centre of pure self-feeling the whole I seek is centre plus circumference and now the struggle at the centre is over the circumference beckons from everywhere.’(12).
This empowerment is the empowerment of compassion, of a generosity of spirit. And so, in the depths of the night, the Samaritan gives up trying to help and just hangs out with the would-be suicide in the humanity of a mutually sustaining intimacy - two small figures joking together adrift on a life raft. When a fellow monk fell down in the snow, Master Joshu lay down beside him... Similarly, the activist discovers what it means to love his adversary - to feel compassion for the person but resolutely to oppose what he stands for.
And so... right now, if nothing you do is of any avail, what will you do?
Disappearing in front, disappearing behind, the forest path unwinds me.

6. The Interdependence of Activism and Monasticism

In Western Zen, monasticism commonly amounts to (a) a teacher or teachers, based on (b) a centre, sometimes with resident senior students who may be veritable monastics, with (c) retreat programmes and facilities, used by (d) more or less committed lay people. By monastics I mean specialists who are sufficiently preoccupied with spiritual practice and maybe the teaching of it as to be more or less excluded from a lay life style.
This illustrates the interdependence of monasticism and activism which I have touched on at several points in this paper. Testimony as to this interdependence can be found in different religious traditions, whether it be that of the famous Thai activist Sulak Sivaraksa in respect of Ajahn Buddhadasa, or of the American peace workers who looked to Thomas Merton ‘to help us keep ourbalance and sense of reality’ (13).
When Hisamatsu rejected monastic Zen he had in mind highly insightful but totally cloistered monastics devoid of any social ethic or else unthinkingly supporting the established order. He therefore maintained that (in Christopher Ives’ words) ‘true practitioners must study such areas as politics, economics, history and the natural sciences in order to understand more fully the issues facing humanity and towork out skilful means (upaya) of responding to them. In short, practice without such study is blind’(14). Similarly for the eminent Zen Master Joshu Sasaki, ‘Zen is a preparation for life in the world, not the goal of life in the world, and in its highest stages involves the study of sociology, politics, economics, etc.’(15). Widely experienced and knowledgeable lay people in this partnership surely have a role to play in helping keep the spiritual specialists well informed. This is necessary both to counter, in teaching, the privatisation of spirituality in our contemporary culture and also to ground themselves in their students’ daily concerns, whether the traumas of neighbourhood crime or the tragedies of the recession, the grief for a dying planet or the effects of childhood sexual abuse on later life. I recall how moved I was, as a peace campaigner, to be asked by Ajahn Anando, the then abbot of Chithurst forest monastery, ‘How can we monastics help?’ And I recall the walks together in the woods, where each offered the other whatever might be most helpful - some periodical articles from me; a fortnight in one of the monastery’s meditation huts from him!(16). It has been suggested that disillusionment with many American Zen masters’ ethical behaviour has been paralleled by disappointment with the elusiveness of Enlightenment. Correspondingly the monastic tradition associated with both has been downgraded in value. One American Zen teacher observed to me that the tenacity of his European students stood in marked contrast to a high turnover among his fellow countrymen and women. The yearning for perfection seems in America to be shifting elsewhere. Riskfree exemplars emphasising a less problematic ethic than many of those tricky masters and lamas of old, are preferred as teachers to insightful discomforters (17).
But having got rid of THIS may there not be a danger of getting stuck with THAT? Both teacher abuse and the characteristic outcry about it are perhaps superficial and sensational facets of a deeper malaise of a Western Buddhism still to come of age (18). Is it perhaps not a question of politically, ethically, correct lay zen against questionable monastic traditions. Rather, we need a new approach centred on a monasticism with an integrity strong enough to enable lay practitioners to withstand and transform a social culture which is on course to secularise a Dharma of inconceivable liberation. If we are to live up to our social and ecological responsibilities, this is essential. Without it a trivialised Buddhism will melt into a socially reflexive New Age preoccupation leaving an unremarked minority of adepts to their yogic enlightenments in mountain fastnesses.
The importance of anchoring social action and service in a strong and mature monastic tradition cannot, I believe, be over-emphasised. Engaged Buddhism is a ‘radical conservatism’ in several senses, not least in that the more radical and potentially disturbing the action, the stronger and more conservative does the monastic support need to be.
The following Vow of Humankind, formulated by Hisamatsu and his students, provides a summary of socially engaged lay Zen:
Keeping calm and composed, let us awaken to our True Self, become truly compassionate humans, make full use of our gifts according to our respective missions in life, discern the agony both individual and social and its source, recognise the right direction in which history should proceed, and join hands as brothers and sisters without distinctions of race, nation or class. Let us, with compassion, vow to bring to realisation humankind’s deep desire for Self-emancipation and construct a world in which everyone can truly and fully live’(16).
  1. Daizen Victoria, ‘Japanese corporate Zen’. Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 12(1) 1980, pp61-68.
  2. Ken Jones, The Social Face of Buddhism, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1989.
  3. Quoted in Christopher Ives, Zen Awakening and Society, London: Macmillan, 1992.
  4. See, for example, Martine Batchelor and Kerry Brown, eds. Buddhism and Ecology, London: Cassell, 1992.
  5. For the Tiep Hien precepts, see ref. (2), above, pp165-168.
  6. Samyutta Nikaya, xii, 15. For an extended Buddhist treatment of political ideology, see Ken Jones, Beyond Optimism: a Buddhist Political Ecology, Oxford: Jon Carpenter, 1993.
  7. Ajahn Buddhadasa, Dhammic Socialism, Bangkok: Thai InterReligious Commission for Development, 1986.
  8. William Ophuls, ‘Political Values for an Age of Scarcity’ American Theosophist, 69(5) May 1981. For fuller treatment see his classic Ecology and the politics of scarcity, San Francisco: W.H.Freeman, 1977.
  9. E.F.Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, London: Abacus, 1974.
  10. See ref. (3), above, p71.
  11. Seng-ts’an, ‘On Trust in the Heart‘ (‘Hsin-Hsin-Ming’) in Edward Conze, Buddhist Scriptures, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959.
  12. Quoted, with grateful acknowledgement to the author, from Kenneth White, Walking the Coast’ The Bird Path: Collected Longer Poems, London: Penguin: 1990, p58.
  13. See ref. (2), above, p190.
  14. See ref. (3), above, p71.
  15. Quoted in Christmas Humphreys, A Western Approach to Zen, London: Allen & Unwin, 1971, p192.
  16. See ref. (3), above, p82.
  17. Those who are uneasy about the new “politically correct” Buddhism will be cheered by John Stevens, Lust for Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex. Boston and London: Shambala.1990.
  18. Helen Twerkov gives a useful overview of the debate in the US around these issues in the ‘Afterword’ of her updated Zen in America (Kodansha International 1994). See further in depth discussion in Tricycle, Spring and Summer 1994 numbers. See also Stuart Lachs, A Slice of Zen in America. New Ch’an Forum No 10 pp 12-20 Bristol Ch’an Group.

Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjuctivity

The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2003 Volume 3: 450-454 ( 17 November )
URL of this document

Book Review

Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity
by Thomas Metzinger
MIT Press, (2003), pp. 699, ISBN: 0-262-13417-9

Reviewed by Marcello Ghin.

The notion of consciousness has been suspected of being too vague for being a topic of scientific investigation. Recently, consciousness has become more interesting in the light of new neuroscientific imaging studies. Scientists from all over the world are searching for neural correlates of consciousness. However, finding the neural basis is not enough for a scientific explanation of conscious experience. After all, we are still facing the ‘hard problem’, as David Chalmers dubbed it: why are those neural processes accompanied by conscious experience at all? Maybe we can reformulate the question in this way: Which constraints does a system have to satisfy in order to generate conscious experience? Being No One is an attempt to give an answer to the latter question. To be more precise: it is an attempt to give an answer to the question of how information processing systems generate the conscious experience of being someone.
We all experience ourselves as being someone. For example, at this moment you will have the impression that it is you who is actually reading this review. And it is you who is forming thoughts about it. Could it be otherwise? Could I be wrong about what I myself am experiencing? Our daily experiences make us think that we are someone who is experiencing the world. We commonly refer to this phenomenon by speaking of the ‘self’. Metzinger claims that no such things as ‘selves’ exist in the world. All that exists are phenomenal self-models, that is continuously updated dynamic self-representational processes of biological organisms. Conscious beings constantly confuse themselves with the content of their actual phenomenal self-model, thinking that they are identical with a self. According to Metzinger, this is due to the nature of the representational process generating the self-model. The self-model is mostly transparent - the information that it is a model is not carried on the level of content - we are looking through it, having the impression of being in direct contact with our own body and the world. If you are now thinking that this idea is at least counterintuitive, you should read Being No One and find out why it is counterintuitive, and yet that there are good reasons to believe that it is correct.
The first chapter of the book is introductory in style. Here, Metzinger points to a problem in consciousness research: on the one side, scientists have been too focused on generating empirical data, without having a precise idea of what they are looking for. They ignored the question of what consciousness is in a systematic way, hoping that they will find an answer by generating huge amounts of data. On the other side, analytic philosophers overestimated the importance of armchair theorizing, ignoring empirical research on the underlying processes of consciousness. Metzinger tries to take advantage of insights of both approaches. His theory puts together philosophical theorizing (introducing new concepts and theoretical entities) and empirical research (testing his theory under the light of recent neurophenomenological case studies). At the beginning he formulates a set of questions which can be used as a benchmark for any theory of consciousness. The answers to questions like “What does it mean to say of a mental state that it is conscious?” (Metzinger 2003, p. 6), “What is the most simple form of phenomenal content? Are there anything like “qualia” in the classic sense of the word?” or “Is artificial subjectivity possible? Could there be nonbiological phenomenal selves?” are developed throughout the book and taken up in a list of ‘short’ answers in the last chapter.
Having started out with a set of questions in the first chapter, he continues building a framework for his theory in the second chapter. What is the place of consciousness in nature? The binding element bridging the gap from the unconscious to the conscious world is the concept of representation. We don’t get a full-blown naturalistic theory of mental representation in Metzinger’s book, but he offers an explanation of how we can best understand mental representations and how they can give rise to conscious experience. In his view, the biological realm is full of representation-processing systems, and consciousness is just a subclass of normal representational processing. He interprets mental representation as a three-place relationship between an aspect of the current state of the world Y, an individual information-processing system S, and a functionally internal system state X representing Y for S. The defining characteristic of a mental representation is that the intentional content of X can become globally available for further processing. The idea of global availability is not new. We can find it in the works of Bernard Baars (1988, 1997) and David Chalmers (1997). Metzinger refines this idea by differentiating between different kinds of availability: availability for guided attention (e.g., I can direct my attention to any feature of the book lying in front of me), availability for cognitive processing (I can form concepts and thoughts about the content of the book), and availability for behavioural control of action (I can volitionally turn the page of the book).
One important and interesting point that Metzinger draws our attention to is that mental information, i.e. information which can be made globally available, does not have to be representational information. In fact, he argues that mental representation - the case where the content of the functionally internal state is fixed by information about states of the world, internal (about my body) as well as external (about the environment) - is just a special case of mental simulation - where the content of the functionally internal state consists of states of affairs in possible worlds. It is easy to see why representation is a special case of simulation: it is the case where the content of the functionally internal state consists of the state of affairs in one world, the real world. However, we still have not discovered how we get from mental simulations or representations to phenomenal simulations and representations - how we get from mental states to conscious states. The idea though is simple: phenomenal simulations and representations are those processes by which the content of the simulata or representata are actually made globally available for attention, cognitive reference and behavioural control.
Not all kinds of global availability have to be realised for the generation of phenomenal experience. For example, if we look at a table with hundreds of shades of blue, we might be able to direct our attention towards each of the shades of blue. But this information is not necessarily available for cognitive reference. We cannot form a concept of each of these shades and recall it whenever we encounter a single shade of blue. In this case, we would still be able to refer to it as blue, but, without having the other shades available for comparison, cannot decide whether we are facing Pantone Blue 287 C or 288 C. And not all information is available for behavioural control. A paralysed person, for example, might be able to deliberately focus her attention towards a specific feature of the backyard (availability for attention), and form thoughts about it (availability for cognitive reference). However, she cannot use this information for walking in the backyard and swinging on the see-saw (blindsight is another paradigm case where information is not made available for behavioural control). Consequently, Metzinger argues that there are degrees of consciousness. What constraints a mental state has to satisfy in order to become a conscious state is discussed at length in the third chapter of Being No One.
There we find a list of ten constraints which help us to judge whether a given representational state is also a conscious state. Starting from a phenomenological level of certain key features of conscious experience, Metzinger develops a multilevel analysis discussing the constraints also on a representational, computational, functional, and neuroscientific level of description.
Let me illustrate this by giving examples from the multilevel analysis of the first constraint: global availability. Metzinger used this constraint already as a placeholder for further constraints in chapter two. Here we get a more refined description of its features. The phenomenology of global availability can be summarized as the ability to react directly to the content of my conscious experience in various ways. According to Metzinger, the globality component of global availability consists in the fact that our conscious experience is always embedded in a highest order whole, which, on the one hand, is highly differentiated, and on the other hand forms an integrated world in which we live our lives. As representational content, globally available content is directly available for various other representational processes, e.g. for subsymbolic processes like attention, or for metacognition and planning. The functional role of global availability consists in generating a world-model, enabling the system to increase its behavioural profile (making it more flexible). The last level of description addresses the question of realisation. What are the neural correlates of consciousness? Of course, we don’t know much about this at the moment. Further research has to be done, possibly guided by Metzinger’s programme generated in BNO. Concerning global availability, we are searching for a highly flexible architecture, exhibiting degrees of modularity and holism for phenomenal content. Metzinger points towards Edelman and Tononi’s dynamical core theory, a promising approach which accommodates his description of global availability on different levels.
The other constraints are presentationality - whatever I experience, I experience it now -, globality - individual conscious states are always integrated into a world-model -, convolved holism - the objects of conscious experience usually form a whole -, dynamicity - we experience the world and ourselves as constantly changing, consciously experienced events are in a flow and exhibit a specific duration -, perspectivalness - we experience the world from an individual perspective -, transparency - we are not aware of the representational/simulational character of the vehicles of conscious content, they are transparent. We look through them, seeming to be in immediate contact with the content -, offline activation, representation of intensities, homogeneity and adaptivity. All together, the constraints can be used for testing the degree of consciousness a system exhibits: the higher the level of constraint satisfaction, the higher the degree of consciousness.
Metzinger finishes the third chapter with some remarks on mental models, introducing the concept of a phenomenal mental model to describe consciously experienced content. In the next chapter he points out that we have to be aware that we are speaking about a whole bunch of different phenomena when speaking about consciousness. It is important not to be misled by intuitions about the nature of one’s own consciousness.
The fourth chapter is used as a first benchmark for his theory. He discusses different kinds of deviant phenomenal models of reality such as agnosia, neglect, blindsight, hallucinations and dreams. It might seem strange to find dreams in this list. What these cases have in common is that they all show that conscious experience can happen on many different levels and in different forms, depending on the degree of constraint satisfaction developed in the first chapters. Chapter 4 and chapter 7 together provide the reader with a fine collection of neurophenomenological case studies which are worth reading for everybody interested in cases challenging traditional views on consciousness, even independently of the rest of the book.
Whereas the first part of the book was addressing the question of which constrains a system has to satisfy for the generation of conscious experience at all (presentationality, globality, and transparency), the second part is dedicated to the issue of subjective conscious experience. What constraints does a system have to satisfy to arrive at the full-blown version of a phenomenal first-person perspective as exhibited by normal human beings in nonpathological standard situations? In this chapter we are getting closer to the core of Metzinger’s theory of subjectivity. The perspectivalness constraint (chapter 2) already provides us with a stepping stone towards the more detailed analysis of self-representation which we find here. Mental self-representation takes place where a system generates a functionally internal state that represents features of the system for itself, the intentional content of which can then be made accessible for attention, control of self-directed action, and cognition.
The next step consists in getting from the mental self-representation to phenomenal self-representation. This happens if the physical internal state representing features of the system for the system itself is currently available for attention, cognitive reference, or self-directed behaviour. As it is the case with mental and phenomenal representation, mental and phenomenal self-representation are just special cases of self-simulations, where a counterfactual state of the system can be made (or is currently) globally available.
With the end of chapter 5, Metzinger has developed the tools with which he builds the core of his theory: the concept of the “phenomenal self-model” (PSM), and the “phenomenal model of the intentionality-relation” (PMIR). The PSM is constituted by the ongoing phenomenal self-representational, self-simulational, and self-presentational processes. The PSM is almost exclusively generated by internal input coming from proprioception and the ongoing dynamic process of establishing a balanced homeostasis, generating the experience of a stable, centered, emotional embodied being.
It is true for most cases that the system is not aware of the model character of the PSM. The transparency constraint applies: the system tends to confuse itself with the model. As Metzinger puts it:
[Y]ou look right through it [the PSM]. You don’t see it, but you see with it. In other, more metaphorical, words, the central claim of the book is that as you read these lines, you constantly confuse yourself with the content of the self-model currently activated by your brain.
After introducing the idea of the PSM, he offers a detailed multilevel analysis using the constraints developed in the preceding chapters.
One important aspect of our phenomenal self-model is that it is integrated into a global model of the world, thus constructing a self-world border. This enables a system to build representations of the relations between itself and the world, itself and specific objects, self-other and self-self relations, which are necessary conditions for the emergence of the phenomena of mineness, selfhood and perspectivalness. The fact that consciousness (under normal conditions) is always tied to an individual first-person perspective is then picked up again by the discussion of the PMIR, the third big building-block of Metzinger’s theory of subjectivity. The PMIR is the continuously dynamical representation of the system interacting with an object. The intentional object can be either a feature of the world (subject-world relation), a feature of the system (subject-subject relation) or of others (subject-other relation). The content of the PMIR can thus be analysed as a relation between two objects and a qualitative characterisation of their relation to each other. The question of what constraints a system has to satisfy in order to generate subjective conscious experience can be addressed now: “Phenomenally subjective experience consists in transparently modelling the intentionality relation within a global, coherent model of the world embedded in a virtual window of presence.” Metzinger calls this the “self-model theory of subjectivity”.
Chapter 7, entitled ‘Neurophenomenological Case Studies II’, is a touchstone for the self-model theory of subjectivity’ (SMT). Here we find examples of deviant phenomenal models of the self, such as anosognosia, identity disorders, and disintegrating self-models, hallucinated selves such as phantom limbs or out of body-experiences, dissociative identity disorder, and lucid dreams. Like in chapter 4, Metzinger discusses these phenomena against the background of his theory, demonstrating the explanatory power of his approach. It is impressive to see how Metzinger brings together his philosophical considerations with a huge amount of recent empirical data from neuroscience.
The final chapter summarizes the work of the book. Using the metaphors of a neurophenomenological caveman, the little red arrow, and the total flight simulator, Metzinger achieves to give his theory a more plastic picture which will be easier to understand for the layman interested in conscious experience and subjectivity. The first metaphor, for example, illustrates our epistemological situation. Our global phenomenal model of reality constitutes the cave in which we live our conscious life. But it is only a model, the experience of which could be generated by internally stimulating the brain, independent of the outside world. The difference to Plato’s caveman, however, is that in our case, there is no one in the cave. What we take as our ‘self’ is just part of the model, part of the cave.
As it turns out, our experience of ‘being someone’ is just a way of experiencing the world. The self-model theory of subjectivity leads us to a paradox: it explains why we have the experience of being someone, yet it shows that there is no 'self' having this experience. It all can be explained in representational terms, and what we call “self” can be substituted by “phenomenal self-model.”

Being No One is a ‘must read’ for everybody working on or just interested in consciousness studies. It is a bold attempt to bridge the gap between philosophy and the empirical sciences, and indeed a fine example of how fruitful this interdisciplinary work can be. It is through works like Thomas Metzinger's that concepts such as 'conscious experience' and 'subjectivity' finally gain scientific dignity, and that we can come closer to an understanding of who or what we are.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Dalai Lama: The Jury is Still Out

The following is a post from a blog that I follow called "By Chance Buddhism":
The Dalai Lama: The Jury is Still Out

. . . As far as I'm concerned. I have heard HHDL speak once, and will be hearing him speak again later this spring. And I'm just as excited as I was before. I have read quite a few of HHDL's books, and think that they are excellent resources, because of 1) their strong message of compassion, and 2) even the most difficult concepts are beautifully explained.

But I do not consider him my 'spiritual leader'. In fact, during the first time I heard him speak I was alarmed that he called himself a 'Marxist'. I have listened to many people paint a rosy picture of communism, often saying things like, "Well, it sounds wonderful, but it just doesn't work in practice." I happen to believe they are only right in the latter part of the statement. Anyway, my point is that such a revelation would not be beneficial to someone who knows a lot about communism, or has experienced it first hand.

Far be it from me to assume what the DL thinks, but I often wonder if his comment was a way to demonstrate compassion in the face of what he and his followers experienced in Tibet. Regardless, I am not one to follow blindly behind someone just because their name is preceded by "His Holiness", they wear robes, or they have written many books. To me, the Dalai Lama is a fellow human being- and a very learned, accomplished, one at that. And I respect his advice and general message.
I found this blog interesting because it related to my first blog Buddhism, Marxism, and Libertarianism: A Conflict of Visions.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Alan Watts: The Middle Way

I've slowly become a fan of Alan Watts.  His lectures on Eastern Philosophy are very profound and intriguing.   I pulled him up on Wikipedia and found the section "Political stance" interesting:

Political stance

In his writings; Watts alluded to his own political shift from Republican conservatism to a more libertarian legal and political outlook.[10] Distrusting both the established political left and right, he found inspiration in the Chinese sage Chuang-Tzu. He disliked much in the conventional idea of "progress". He hoped for change, but personally he preferred amiable, semi-isolated rural social enclaves, and also believed in tolerance for urban tenderloins, social misfits, and eccentric artists. Watts decried the suburbanization of the countryside and the way of life that went with it.
In one campus lecture tour, which Watts titled "The End to the Put-Down of Man", Watts presented positive images for both nature and humanity, spoke in favor of the various stages of human growth (including the teenage years), reproached excessive cynicism and rivalry, and extolled intelligent creativity, good architecture and food.