Act One – Who am I and what can I know?
In the background a soothsayer began his tale, “I was walking in Wales yesterday.”
“Accounting,” she said, “was the first step in the fall of man.”
“How do you make that out?” I said.
“First there was we,” she replied. “Then there was I, quickly followed by he and then it. Then there was he has more of it than I!”
“But what has that got to do with accounting and the fall of man?” I asked.
“At first it did not matter who had what. That was what the Gods had decreed and that was how it was. Then the Gods were banished and the accountants began to count. They counted the distance across the plains and the time taken to cross them, they counted the stars in the sky and the hairs on a man’s head, they counted everything; in particular they counted how much he had and then how much he had and indeed how much each and every he had.
Soon they forgot about the plains, the sky and the man. These were replaced by the number and the bigger the number the more impressive, the more important was the number; and lost were the plains, the sky and the man.”
“Hmph!” I replied and walked back to the fire.
“Don’t mind her,” said the smartly dressed man by the fire. “She has done nothing but sulk since we moved into town. She used to be mayoress but she was so inefficient and we, the newcomers, made so many improvements the people voted our party in.”
“What is she called?” I asked.
“Mother Nature,” he replied. “Don’t get me wrong though, she did a lot of good work and left us a lot of resources to work with, but she just didn’t use them right.”
“That’s right,” said the man in the white coat next to him. “She never bothered to find out how things work, she just left them to chance. We analysed her output, experimented with it and measured the results. Before you could say Empiricist we had everything under control and output was soaring.”
“That sounds good,” I responded.
“Oh it is,” said the first man. “Now there are more of us and we all have more. But we haven’t introduced ourselves. I am Mr Commerce and this is Professor Science. He knows practically everything and he tells me how things work so I can make money out of it. I keep most of this money but I give him some so he can find out even more things and I can make even more money.”
“What happens when he knows everything?” I asked.
“Well my colleagues and I are still some way off,” said Professor Science, “so we tend not to think about it. We know we can get there but we are happy just to investigate those areas where the money….”
“What he means,” interspersed Mr Commerce, “is that we humans can have every faith in his ability, we will all continue to benefit from his work and that of his colleagues. And we will of course distribute those benefits fairly and without prejudice through the market where everyone is equal.”
“Like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.” Mother Nature muttered sardonically as she joined the three of us. With her was an obviously religious man, he wore only a robe and sandals and no ornamentation at all.
“An interesting question, what happens when we know everything?” he commented.
“Sehr interessantes”, said the stocky middle-aged man ordering a drink from the bar. “My friends and I have been discussing the nature of knowledge, and indeed what it is to live, for some time. Perhaps you would like to join us?”
We moved to join a group of Europeans in the lounge – I heard French and German – and I pondered on how I had got involved in this conversation. My interest was in accounting, environmental management accounting to be precise, and I had been considering the meaning of ‘environmental’ when Mother Nature had started talking to me. Maybe she had read my notes over my shoulder.
Strangely enough the first voice I heard was that of a young Englishman (Wilson, 2001). “You are obviously struggling with something,” he said, “you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t. It’s that question ‘Why?’ I can tell. Well I have conversed with thinkers from Blake to Nietzsche, from Kierkegaarde to Sartre. With writers that include Dostoevsky and Camus. Each found their own answers. Some of them are here maybe you can talk to them.”
Then he was gone, on reflection maybe he was never there. Perhaps he was just a memory. That’s one of my problems; I have always struggled to decide what is real and what is just in my head.
“I just heard my name.” said a man, presumably a pastor judging by his dress, in a Danish accent. “My name is Kierkegaarde, Soren Kierkegaarde.”
“Yes,” I replied. “Somebody just said that you knew the answer to the question ‘Why?’ and me, well I wonder ‘Why’ people should care for the environment. I know I do but I don’t know why. To be honest I am not even sure anymore what the ‘environment’ is.”
“I doubt you will ever find the answer those questions. Life is a personal and subjective experience and I doubt there is any all-encompassing understanding of the universe in which we live (Hannay, 1991, Westphal, 1998, Blattner, 2006).”
“Absolutely,” said the man to his left. “As my friend Edmund Husserl says things depend on our experience of them and what we bring to them (Polt, 1999, Blattner, 2006).”
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“Life is short,” he replied, “and it has no fixed nature. Its essence “lies in its to be” (Blattner, 2006, p35). We are simply thrown into the world and must somehow make sense of it. We have to find our own reason for life (Polt,1999) as it constantly unfolds before us.”
“Humans have always wondered about the nature of the universe and our world in particular,” spoke a quiet voice from behind me. It was the religious man I had noticed earlier. “Judaism, Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism all have their roots in writings more than 2,500 years old and these religions have, to various degrees, sought to describe the universe and ascribe meaning to it.”
“I have little time for religion,” responded the speaker.
“Me too,” I ventured bravely, “I have searched for God many times but whenever I come close He or She eludes me.”
“It is true many religions such as Judaism and Christianity and Islam find meaning in God. The universe is explained in terms of God the creator who is an omnipresent and omniscient being,” replied the religious man. “Through him those who follow the religion are able to understand their existence.”
“Yes,” said Kierkegaard re-entering the conversation. “I have found understanding in my religion. You see we have to make choices. But the important thing is, having made a choice, to commit to it with passion.”
“Life appears to be about choices then?” I asked metaphorically. “I suppose it is possible to make sense of it through God. A man I know (McIntosh, 2004) unwraps a version of Christianity wherein God is much more allegorical figure, representative rather than real, yet still personal to those who choose to communicate with Him or Her; but I doubt that this is the God most Christians (or Jews or Moslems) believe in.”
“I am not sure about ‘choices’,” responded the still unnamed speaker. “There are many ways to see the world. We live in it with Others and draw knowledge from them from the very beginning. Consequently the way we see the world is shaped by them and as such is ‘inauthentic’; it is not how we would see it, it is how ‘they’ see it. It is important that we are aware of this and perhaps seek after the ‘authentic’ Truth in so far as this is possible.”
“Where do you begin?” I asked. “Take God for example. Surely a creator who is omnipresent and omniscient would mean a universe in which all life is surely pre-determined and the nature of agency severely limited if not non-existent? That would render this conversation meaningless for a start!”
“Go on,” said the religious man.
“Well part of me, the rational part, says the idea of an all powerful, omnipresent God is unnecessary, a little self-serving even. Mankind can’t understand the universe so he invents a figure who can. He then gives this figure human and super-human attributes; the former allowing him to associate with said figure, the latter allowing the figure to know what mankind can’t know. I do not see the need for this figure. Yet part of me sees how important God is to many people, and I remember that our knowledge is limited, thus I have to leave room for the possibility He or She exists.”
“In the East,” said the religious man, “they went a different way, two different ways perhaps. Initially there were many gods and in parts there still are, further East gods have had less of a part to play.
“Ah, the gods,” said Mother Nature, “my incestuous children sired by their half brothers – mankind. Together they sought to make sense of the world we shared. That is until the voice of Reason lost sight of sense and feeling and sought to portray the world as words and numbers.”
“And a good job too.” said Mr Commerce. “We are all infinitely better off since we listened to Reason. Since he appeared we have been able to curtail your more perverse creations and turn the world into a better place. With due thanks to Professor Science of course.”
“Oh thank you,” responded the Professor, sounding a little embarrassed.
“Interesting that,” said a tall, rather stern looking lady in glasses. “I was talking to a man called John Steinbeck the other day and he said how we might know of something, that is have feelings about it, yet not have a word for it; ‘man has to have feelings and then words before he can come close to thought and, in the past at least, that has taken a long time’ he said (Steinbeck, 1965).
“The gods are alive and well in the Upanishads,” continued the religious man, ignoring the interruptions. “They continue to help people understand those things that lie beyond Reason’s voice. But there are those who have never sought their help. They simply talk of the Tao, the Way (Tzu,1963). For them ‘The way is forever nameless (ibid, p37). For them ‘there is no reason for us to assume that the totally real is totally knowable’ (ibid, pxix).”
“Now I might be able to live with that,” remarked the (still) unnamed speaker.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“It matters not who he is,” interrupted a man with a pronounced French accent.
“More important is who he is to be.” he continued smiling to himself, he seemed to have made a joke. “Like many of us here, my friend Gabriel Marcel (Reynolds, 2006) calls us the Existentialists, he wonders about what it means to be. Who are we? What are we? Now me I see us as being and having consciousness, and through that we come to exist as our Self (Sartre, 1973, Barnes,1992). Perhaps, even, as that Self that Mother Nature appears to dislike so much?”
“Have you ever seen this Self?” shouted a young German voice impatiently (Heaton and Groves, 2009) from a corner of the room. “Self is just another word in a lexicon that is the world we know, the only world we can know.”
“C’est vrai,” echoed a number of French voices.
Ignoring them the Frenchman continued, “However as I see it we must also recognise there is an aspect of us that depends on our recognition by Others (being-for-others). We exist in the space between Others. Essentially our existence depends on the existence of Others (Sartre, 1973).”
“I like that idea,” I said, “but now, having heard those calling in the background, it appears I have another decision to make. First God or no God. Now Self or no Self. Furthermore if Self does exist how do I deal with the Others who seem to make me what I am?”
“Followers of the Tao,” responded the religious man, “would probably not recognise the metaphysical nature of your enquiry. However they would be comfortable with your quest to know how to live. The Taoist book Tao Te Ching is very short and though said to be by Lao Tzu it is often considered to be an anthology bringing together the ideas of a number of Chinese authors who offer advice on how to live and how to govern.”
“But that sounds like just another book on etiquette,” I replied.
“In some ways yes,” he returned. “but remember the Tao tells us that not everything is knowable. It gives advice but implicit in that is that we must make our own way.”
“Selbstverstandlich,” said the (still) unknown but now obviously German speaker.
“I should also say there is further advice from the East,” continued the religious man, “which is relevant to Self.”
“And that is?” I asked.
“It comes from Buddhism.” he replied, “Buddhism too is more about how to act and behave (Conze, 1994) but equally it seems to recognise Self in that it suggests we lose it in our search for contentment (Zimmerman, 2006).”
“I am thinking particularly of a confluence of Buddhism and Tao which became known as Ch’an Buddhism in China and Zen Buddhism in Japan (Suzuki, 1991). Zen is a systematic training of the mind which claims to reveal the mystery of existence in the ‘most uninteresting and uneventful life of the plain man in the street’ (ibid, p45). Zen believes that the answer to this mystery lies within all of us and to find it we need to acquire a new viewpoint or satori. This requires a systematic stripping away of pre-conceived notions, of logic and analysis, and the opening up of an inner consciousness. This inner consciousness is beyond any logical statement we can make but through it we will experience Nirvana.”
“Whoa,” I said, “Now that is metaphysical.”
“Yes it is”, said an wise-looking, avuncular chap with a moustache. “and westerners have difficulty with satori because it goes beyond rationality and can only be experienced. It defies logic and consciousness. I suspect it is an experience drawn directly from the unconscious and ‘an answer of Nature’ (ibid, p20). By unconscious I mean ‘the matrix of all metaphysical assertions, of all mythology, all philosophy (in so far as it is not merely critical) and all forms of life which are based upon psychological suppositions’ (ibid, p23). Zen is the product of some of the most venturesome minds of the East over the last two thousand years. In the west only Goethe or Nietzsche have come close to touching the sort of experience that is satori”
A dark figure at the back of the room groaned and this was echoed by the Frenchmen who cheered the young German earlier. I guessed they were critical of his implicit acceptance of Self.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“My name is Jung and my calling is psychology and psycho-analysis,” he replied.
“He besmirches the science of psychology with his outdated ideas,” cried a French voice. “There is no Self, no consciousness that we can ever know. There are only words and logical analysis.”
“Precisely what Zen seeks to bypass,” I said, “yet you say there is nothing else. What can I make of that?”
The dark figure stirred. “Whilst I despise metaphysics I understand the need to know who we are. The answer surely lies within us, words are inadequate, and it is for us to search for it. Friend Martin seems to have eventually found his answer in art and poetry – Goethe even (Blattner, 2006) – so maybe Carl Gustav has a point. And surely I will die searching for who I am.”
It seems the unknown earlier speaker was Martin Heidegger. I was to find out later the dark figure was Friederick Nietzsche.
“None of this helping much,” I said, “I have yet to decide if I – that is my Self – exist at all. Still less do I know about any Others.”
“Well let me tell you what I know about Self,” said a smart looking lady. She reminded me of my doctor. “I too am a psychologist and have studied the mind and human behaviour for many years, that’s what we psychologists do (Gross, 2010).”
“And, I might add,” she said with a questioning look at Jung, “we do it in a scientific manner.”
“Quite right,” said Professor Science.
“There are several approaches to psychology (Gross, 2010),” continued the smart looking lady. “The earliest scientific approach was behaviourism which is in essence an empirical approach seeing the mind as inaccessible and choosing to observe human behaviour and measure it in some way.”
“Very good,” said Professor Science.
Personally I was unsure what this might tell me about Self and I said as much.
“The next development was probably his field,” she continued pointing at Jung, “Psychodynamism! He and his friends Adler and Freud made up models of the mind in order to explain behaviour.”
There was more than a hint of sarcasm in her voice. There was also some cheering in the background, egging her on. Metaphysics was certainly unpopular in some quarters.
“I merely found a way to explain what I observed,” retorted Jung. “The model of Self, including the conscious and unconscious Self, worked in that it explained what I saw and was useful in my work as a psychotherapist. Ultimately I had no reason to disbelieve that we, that is our Selves, did not exist.”
“Well,” I said, “the idea of Self certainly seems to fit in with some of these Eastern ideas, but as a sort of hindrance to contentment.”
“Obviously my earlier comments on Zen show I broadly agree with your point,” said Jung. “I would also add that man often loses sight of who he is ‘putting his own conception of himself in place of his real being’ (Jung, 2002, p58).”
“So you think that we have a Self but it is somehow deluded into thinking it is something else,” I commented. “I guess that ties in with Herr Heidegger’s idea of inauthentic knowledge, perhaps we have been mislead, not necessarily on purpose, by Others. And perhaps Satori is an experience wherein we see through this inauthentic knowledge and experience who we truly are.”
“And perhaps we even find a collective unconsciousness,” whispered Jung, more uncertain now.
“Or perhaps Self simply disappears,” suggested the religious man.
“Perhaps the young German chap was right,” I said slowly. “Perhaps Self is just a word given to us as a way to understand our perceptions. A heritage passed down by Others who also think of themselves as Selfs. Perhaps there is no Self.”
“OK that’s enough of that,” said the Psychologist lady, “Let’s get back to what we can know.”
“Humanist psychology developed in the 1950s and probably the most famous exponent is Maslow who intimated the ultimate human goal is self-actualisation (Maslow, 1954) where one becomes everything one is capable of becoming.”
“Hmm,” said the religious man, “This, in part at least, reminds me of the Hindu idea of self-realization (Narasimhan, et al., 2010, Narayanan, 2010).”
“And satori and Nirvana,” I added.
“Not so,” said the Psychologist lady. “Humanism was a product of Modernity, men-and-women kind would make their own futures. Herr Jung and his friends talked of a Self determined by Others, hinting at deeper, unknowable forces.”
“Maybe, just maybe they were partly right,” I responded. “As I just said perhaps Self is given to us by Others as a way of understanding our perceptions, and maybe as part of that gift we are introduced to the idea of making choices. I guess I am wondering whether there is a pre-existing Self, an Id as Freud (1923/1960) might put it, or a simply a Self given to us by others. I guess I will never know, both ideas are metaphysical and beyond our reach.”
“Following humanism we have cognitive psychology,” continued the Psychologist with a touch of boredom bordering on impatience. “Cognitive psychologists do not try to build a model but seek to understand human thought by way of analogy and metaphor. They compare thought processes with computer processes for example. In this way they move beyond the limits of pure logic and induction. This is actually a fault with both humanism and cognitive psychology, they put forward theories that cannot be proven empirically.”
“Quite so”, said Professor Science.
“Social constructionism came next,” said the Psychologist. “It has been described as follows ‘We are born into a world where the conceptual frameworks and categories used by the people of our culture already exist…Concepts and categories are acquired by each person as they develop the use of language and are thus reproduced every day by everyone who shares a culture and language. This means that the way a person thinks, the very categories and concepts that provide a meaning for them, are provided by the language that they use. Language is therefore a necessary pre-condition for thought as we know it (Burr, 2003).’ Essentially there is only language and our understanding of the world is framed by our words. Psychologists must work within this frame.”
There was some more cheering from the French crowd at the back.
“I am not sure if I accept that,” I said. “That stern lady with the glasses reminded us of what John Steinbeck said about feelings coming before words.”
“I’m the Librarian,” shouted the lady from the back.
“That’s up to you,” said the Psychologist, now definitely impatient. “The final type of psychology I have in mind is evolutionary psychology. This suggests the mind has evolved in much the same way as any other bodily organ. According to this theory there are certain traits ‘hardwired’ into our way of thinking, for example the need for a mate, that give rise to feelings and emotions in a pre-determined way. Everything we are and what we do can be traced back to our evolution and as scientists we are searching for evidence to prove this.”
“So we are back to determinism,” I said. “We are a product of chemical reactions over time which in turn give rise to traits that make us human?”
“Well I won’t accept that,” said the Frenchman who had spoken earlier. “Existence comes before essence (Sartre, 1973?).
“In my heart I agree,” I said, “but my head knows we cannot know.”
“As Richard Rorty (1991) said,” spoke the Librarian in confirmation, “there is no “God’s-eye point of view” or a “sky-hook” that will lift us above the world to see the Truth.”
“If you have finished,” called out a man in green, “I am an Ecopsychologist and I note you have omitted to mention my craft.”
“I wonder why?” said the Psychologist sarcastically.
“Because you science types won’t acknowledge anything that can’t be measured,” replied the man in green. “Ecopsychology however has a good pedigree. Robert Greenaway, a writer who worked for Maslow no less, can probably be named as the founder of ecopsychology though he referred to it as psychoecology. He also explored something called transpersonal psychology which is a psychology that ‘embraces and draws upon the wisdom of the world’s spiritual traditions and the developments in modern psychology’ (Www.Transpersonalcentre.Co.Uk/About) something which also interested our friend Carl Gustav (Jung, 1991, 2002).”
“The term ecopsychology itself appears to have been invented by Theodore Roszak (1992). He actually defined it (Roszak, 1994) as (1) an emerging synthesis of ecology and psychology, (2) the skilful application of ecological insights to the practice of psychotherapy, (3) the discovery of our emotional bond with the planet, and (4) defining ‘sanity’ as if the whole world mattered (Schroll, 2007) In other words a psychology that acknowledges our place as part of, not just in, the world.
My ears pricked up. I wanted to know why people might be interested in the environment. Here was something that felt very relevant.
The soothsayer was finishing his tale, “I had intended to walk around the Cwm Eigau horseshoe; a ten mile hike over Carneddy Llewellyn, the second highest mountain in Wales. Not for the first time this mountain threw me off, I barely reached the shoulder before I decided I had had enough. But only in defeat can one advance and as I reflected on the experience I learned a little more about patience, spirituality and humility. I felt closer to my Self to use a Zen expression. And the world around me joined in my celebration, I saw a whinchat and heard a cuckoo plus a host of other, more familiar friends.”