The World is in Need of Mental Progress
The Western world is on its return, and we know it. Inner weakness makes it difficult to compete with China and Russia, and to keep control over the robots, which might create unstable global systems. Careful study of the mind and search for what are the typical human strengths and weaknesses is of the highest priority.
The spirit of times is highly affected by a series of trends, which seem very difficult to reverse. The combination of globalization and β-technical progress might be the most important example. Irrational and immoral behaviour is of all times. However, in combination with the current trends, it seems impossible to continue this behaviour. So far, the Western world is leading. But many Westerners increasingly discover that their empire might end within the near future. Moreover, they don’t see an alternative empire coming up that looks trustworthy. The global economy is less stable than necessary. The same holds true for many national democracies. The increasing political, ethnic and religious animosities fulfil Westerners with fear. Those who are able to reflect upon theirselves, admit that their increased richness has not led to less corruption and fraud – to less greed and lies. The moral claim to be superior in terms of human rights has become suspicious – and we, Westerners, we know it.
The American president Trump is a good illustration of the mental and moral defeat of the West. Who is not worried about the future of our children and grandchildren? This article takes the combination of globalization and technical progress as inevitable; may be we can slow down some processes, and have time to adjust to changing circumstances. But an immigration stop for all countries, and a stop with respect to technological innovation is too much against human nature. Every serious attempt will fail, and create chaos. The alternative is to accompany these developments with a qualitative improvement in terms of mentality. The Western world disposes of ample resources to analyse this type of problems, and develop technologies to improve the willpower of persons. Self-reflection, combined with willpower leads people to develop their talent, and to contribute to the benefit of all people rather than to the benefit of their selves and members of the own group. Self-reflection gives people a broader view, a focus on meaning rather than comfort. As a ‘side-effect’ people will become more aware of their natural environment, who are looking for meaning rather than comfort are more aware of their social and natural environment, and the necessity to be in harmony with it rather than dominating it.
In the next section we will discuss the role of mentality in biochemical-neural-psychological research. In section 3 we discuss the so-called human primacy: does a person has some discretionary room besides the influence of genetic and social structure? Section 4 is about the possibilities of mental improvement, which should lead to a reduction of irrationality and immorality. In the last section we conclude that there is no reason to be pessimistic; we should take our chances, develop our talents, and go for meaning. While not going for comfort all the time, we will end up living a life, which is worth to be lived.
- Mentality is not completely endogenous
To explain a shift from comfort to meaning being the ultimate goal in life, we make a distinction between the material and the mental aspect of human behaviour. We can imagine that reality is essentially energy. Then human energy has two aspects: mental energy and material energy. The first does not exist without the second, and vice versa. The analytical distinction is necessary to get knowldege bout the permanent interaction between the mental and the material world. Both have, to a certain extent, their own drives, restrictions and mechanisms (Keizer 2015, ch.10).
The mental aspect is responsible for the constitution of the whole of a person. We need mental energy or willpower to survive as a ‘system’. But every system has also a material aspect., represented by physical energy. This aspect of energy is also necessary for the survival of humans. Life results from the permanent interaction between the internal wold and the external world. The first world can be approached by introspection, and the second world by means of the classical senses. The mind is the inner and the body, and the physical and chemical environment is the outer world.
When looking at current bio-chemical, neural and cognitive research, we see a strong focus on the role of the genes and the brain. Social psychology stresses the role of the social environment. There is an ongoing but fruitless debate between the two camps. Both are quite empirically orientated without having developed a realistic analysis of a human person. Neuroscience is growing in importance, and the use of Big Data is explosively growing. Artificial intelligence might replace human intelligence. Robots might take over responsibility, since they are not making the typical human mistakes. It is embarrassing, however, to see that the mental part is not analyzed. There is no model with emotions, feelings, and thoughts. There is no self, no ‘I’ and no willpower. Humans are just making mistakes, and there is a priori no way for people to learn from these mistakes. The results of the cooperation between the bio-chemists, the neural scientists and the cognitive psychologists is called ‘positive psychology’ . The name clearly refers to the empiricist view on reality. In philosophy of science this epistemology is called ‘logical positivism’.
Robotization is one of the results of ongoing technological progress. It implies a strong increase in labour productivity. It leads to much comfort without working hard under bad circumstances for thiose who have a nicely paid job. Besides the huge problem of inequality and unemployment there is another very serious problem. How can we keep control over smart robots? Artificial intelligence is based on brain knowledge. But what about the mental part? The scientific philosophy of the dominating positive psychology prevents scientists to model the mental aspect:” it cannot be approached empirically – so, it does not exist”. So, a robot does not need an ‘I’, a Self and willpower, and no moral sentiment, such as sympathy. Careful analysis of the mental aspect of human behaviour – on the basis of introspection and social communication – shows us, however, the importance of mentality. Mental power organizes energy in such a way that the ‘system’ stay integrated and can focus on particular goals. It makes self-reflection possible, which might lead to a more open mind. Open-minded people are able to become inspired – creating new ideas on the basis of their unique combinations of experiences.
The algorithms used in the economic policy realm, for instance, are far from reliable. Especially intimes of uncertainty and instability, as we face now, we have to use our very imperfectly developed intuition. but robots have no intuition at all. Robotization has made the global financial system even more unstable than it would have been without robots. We should develop models of the mind and see whether there are instruments to improve the quality of the human intuition.
Might become the robot a superior human? To answer this question we must find out what part of the human mind makes the human superior up to now. In the next section we will discuss this issue.
The system, which models the behaviour of a person is an open system. The interaction between mind and body is constantly bombarded by impulses from the environment of the system. The system itself has some influence on the environment – some personal systems more than others.
As already said, the dominant literature in positive psychology is about the influence of genetic versus social factors. There is barely room for the influence of the mentality of a person; his personality. Even if 95% is attributed to genes and social context, the other 5% is very important. Imagine that about 10% of the population spend much time on self-reflection and the building-up of willpower, this can have a very significant effect on the functioning of society as a whole. Of course, willpower can be used at the detriment of others. But self-reflection by sensitive persons leads to self-knowledge, including the dark side of every self. Self-critique makes a person wiser, and suitable for jobs in the top of our organizations.
According to neuro-cognitive research our cognitive capacities cannot penetrate particular areas; in these regions our (biological) instincts rule (Camerer et al. 2007). Much discussed problems because of this cognitive inaccessibility are the following:
- When a person meets another person, who is not member of the same group, the visceral system signals that the person must be alert. It makes him aware of the difference, and his first reaction is an affective, not a cognitive one. We call this reaction discrimination. We can practise our skills to prevent discrimination by meeting persons from different backgrounds as much as possible, get familiar with their habits and ways of interpreting situations. Superficial contact is dangerous – it might strenghten prejudice and promoting the need to humiliate ‘the other’.
- Some persons are over-optimistic, while others tend to be over-pessimistic. So, if an economy is growing for a relatively long period, many people act as if the economy will keep growing forever (Akerlof, Schiller 2009). If an organization operates in an economy, which does not function well for many generations already, many plans to improve and extend the organisation will be rejected. Even if the plans are well-developed, including careful cost/benefit analysis, most people instinctively react negatively. Long enduring mental training, including self-reflection and increasing self-knowledge might break through this inertia. Mental entrepreneurs are needed to start-up programmes for the education of mental coaches.
- When we do not train our mentality we are inclined to focus our attention on a series of instintively chosen phenomena. When we have grown up in the country our instincts lead to intuitions, which differ from the intuitions of people, who have grown up in a large city. Country-men are familiar with everything important on a farm, while city-people are more street-wise. The same holds for academic students, who have been taught neoclassical economics, and have no clue of post-Keynesian economics. They do not know that their views are based on a narrow-minded intuition. Neuro-economic research implies that information that fits the neoclassical analysis, for instance, is automatically accepted, without any intervention of cognitive capacities. If information does not fit the neoclasscial frame of interpretation – wages as well as employment are increasing over a couple of years already, for instance – this information is not stored in the memory. A pluralist economics programme offers students ample opportunity to train their mentality. Time and again they discover that people who have different frames, might be right in some cases. True science is not for weak personalities, and require strong and open minds.
As already said, minds hold material systems together. Only then a material system can function well in the whole of other and larger systems. But every personal mind has a particular degree of freedom, which is a discretionary room, sensitive to new ideas. Where do these new ideas come from? Every person is a unique combination of experiences, which are based on a unique genetic structure operating in a unique social context. Robots will never have a system of algoritms, that perfectly reflects a person’s mind. They are always bound to average associations.
Personally I would never give up my autonomy for a robot, which cannot contain all my experiences, and therefore cannever produce ‘my’ new ideas. Moreover, I would always stay responsible for the advices of my robot, a responsibility which gives my life meaning.
- The role of morality
Babies do not have the awareness of self – for them there are mother- and father figures, being a source of safety, warmth, food and drinks. When they are about four years old, they discover who is ‘I’, and they become conscious of claims like: “thou shall (not) …..”. When disobeying moral rules, they feel ashamed when an adult is discovering it. Moral feelings are developed, and co-determine their behaviour. The social context in which a child grows up, does matter very much. If parent-figures and peers always use a particular ‘us versus them’-frame, moral sentiments are related to members of ‘us’, while moral resentments are attributed to members of ‘them’. In less primitive cultures the ‘us versus them’-frame is weaker. Members of different groups meet each other frequently, and moral resentments become weaker.
Progressive people in the Western world have a utopian frame in mind: the global population is one group: ‘us’; there is no ‘them’ anymore. There is one big problem, however, with this progressive point of reference. Reality is so different, and many people are so rivalry-minded. In the section on mentality we have seen that irrationality is the rule. Persons do not behave according to rules they underline, when they are asked to fill in questionnaires. Impulsive and automatized behaviour, focussed on maximizing personal comfort is very difficult to control. It means that bad mentalities imply bad moralities. To improve moral standards it is necessary to improve the mentality first; it means that persons should invest in willpower.
The existence of moral sensitivity supports the development of mental strength. The interaction between mentality and morality means that two developments are thinkable: (1) mental and moral entrepreneurs give a boost to the reasonability of many persons; it leads to an improvement of the quality and productivity of the economy; this stimulates further growth in reasonability; (2) the economy gets a boost, in whatever way, making people more positive-minded; in a climate of optimism more people encourage themselves and each other, and start working on their mental en moral goals; this reinforces the economic development. It goes without saying that a long period of economic depression makes it more difficult for people to take morally and mentally positive initiatives. In the next section we discuss the systems analysis of Parsons (1951, 1978). His analyses were so impressive that the American Sociological Association called Parsons the greatest sociologist of the 20th century. We will see that he pays attention to the ‘mass de manoeuvre’ of persons and groups, so as to change their institutions, if necessary.
- Parsons on systems
Talcott Parsons was an economist, who took the social context in which economies function seriously. His systems approach can only be understood if we have the difference between aspect-systems and sub-systems clearly in mind. An aspect-system contains the same elements compared with its whole system. But the character of the relationships are just an aspect of the character of the relationships in the whole system. The character of the relationships between the elements in a substem are identical to those of the whole system. The elements, however, are a subset of the elements of the whole system.
Parsons (1951) distinguishes four aspects of each system, which are conditional for the well-functioning of the system The first aspect-system is called ‘adaptation’, and analyses the input-output relationship between this system and its natural environment. It delivers the system its resources. In this article it is better to call this the economic aspect-system. The second aspect-system is called ‘goal attainment’; we call it the psychic or mental aspect-system. Mentality makes that every single element is completely directed to the achievement of the goals of the whole system. A system without goals will fall apart in the end. The third aspect-system is called ‘integration’, and we call it the social aspect-system. All elements of the system must be positively related to each other; otherwise too much energy is wasted. The fourth and last aspect-system is called ‘latency’; here it is called the political or governance system.
Parsons (1978) places human society within the system of the universe. Now he distinguishes a physical-chemical system (‘adaptation’), an organic system, which offers us the goals ( ‘goal-attainment’), human society delivers us the necessary integration between the different social systems, and at last he distinguishes a ‘telic’ system, which offers us meaning. In primitive societies the systems just mentioned were primarily subsystems. The women gathered edible plants, some men hunted wild animals, the priest was responsible for the rituals, so as to hold society together and give meaning to the lives of the people. In our modern societies it is more fruitful to interptret this distinction in terms of aspect-systems. In every organization – be it a family or a firm or a government agency – the four aspects play a role. Also families produce services, and so with churches. Both examples of institutions controbute to integration or is contributing to ongoing dis-integration. Ethics play a role everywhere in society – not just within the family.
We can learn from Parsons that every system needs a minimum of energy spent on each of the four aspects in order to survive. If not, the system falls apart. This rule holds for physical-chemical systems, for human persons and organizations and for human society at large. So, if the psychic (mental) system and the social system does barely interact in a positive way, rivalry can distort the economic and political aspect-system. Chaos and poverty will be the result. Recovery can only be expected if mental entrepreneurs stand up, and develop economic and political structures, which restore order. We must recognize that these entrepreneurs are not necessarily reasonable and democratic. Russia and China show that other societal orders might prevail if many people are not open-minded. To respect basic human rights – “every person counts”-, we need other types of mental entrepreneurs. Merkel might be an example here.
A second lesson we can learn from Parsons says that meaning is not just the same as goal-setting. The idea behind this distinction is the following. If a person strives for self-interest, independent of other people, after a while he might feel emptiness, and loneliness looms. If a small group of persons feel socially united, and only serve the group interest, satisfaction is more intense and sustain longer. Many Russians feel strongly attached to the idea of the ‘Russian world’; they feel proud of being a Russian, and are prepared to accept sacrifices if necessary for the protection of Russian interests. So far, so easy. But to shake hands with the enemy and see what the ‘us’and the ‘them’ have in common, is much against their mental and moral state. Generally members of ‘us’ and ‘them’ need more self-reflection and more life experience with members of the enemy. In that case they might discover to have lived with strong and wrong prejudices. The possibility of a reversal makes the study of mental and moral problems so important. To reduce the chance of future disasters, it would make very much sense studying mental and moral problems in their economic and political context. The ultimate goal is to unlearn people to derive self-respect from fighting against people, who are different. It might end up with the general agreement, that every person counts. From then on round-table social encounters can be organized so as to peacefully discuss the differences in views and interests between persons and groups.
In the next section we summarize this paper and draw a number of conclusions.
This article searches for what is typical human and the place of the human in the whole of the universe. We live in a period, in which the Western world is losing its grip. For so long it dominated many parts of the world. Even the claim of moral superiority is under heavy attack. Rivals of the claimed Western civilization are the Western world itself, China, Russia and the robots to come.
In positive psychology there is barely room for the mental aspect of human behaviour. Humans are supposed to be physical-chemical information stores, searching for balance and comfort. There is no significant difference between machines and humans, and artificial intelligence will lead to robots, who will turn out to be superior. It is also probable that this development will lead to the robotization of humans. Genetic failures can be reduced, bones can be made stronger and the brain processes can be made of higher quality by built-in algorithms, improving the quality of emotional and cognitive processes. In section 3 we have clarified what is meant by mentality. The mental world can be observed by means of introspection. Creative human persons can acquire knowledge in many different ways. There are many scopes, by means of which they can see what is going on in the mind. When the ‘I’ of a person is looking at his self, he can be satisfied or not. In case of low-self-respect he feels an uncomfortable tension, and is inclined to get rid of it. He can also discover his potential to develop moral sentiments, not only for members of the own group, but also for other persons.
A deeper understanding of mentality and consequent morality leads to the discovery that humans have the capacity to be creative and inspired. Thorough knowledge of different ways of thinking leads to the increasing discovery of the true self. It also implies the readiness to invest in willpower and use it to manifest several of the talents, which are so characteristic for a particular person. Creativity results from the combination of many experiences, together with so many interpretations of these experiences. Along this way every person gradually appears unique, with a unique name. Potentially humans are open-minded. Over the years experiences can be so bad that the mind closes for experiences of more differences. In this sense humans have become the enemies, not only of other humans, but also of their self (Keizer, 2015, ch.10 and 14).
Parsons is considered as the greatest among the group of social scientists, and well-known for his systems analysis. His work can only be understood when keeping the difference between aspect-system and sub-system in mind. A system can only survive as long as it has the resources (economic aspect), the positive social relations between the elements (social aspect), a coherent set of goals (psychic aspect) and the governance needed to keep the system together (political aspect). If not, the system will fall apart. When setting goals, humans must recognize that their short-term drive to comfort might give us the means, but not the goals that are leading to long-term satisfaction. Parsons analyses the ‘telic’ system. It must produce a sense of meaning, different from just feeling safe and comfortable. In the original functionalist approach religion and its institutions were the place in society were meaning is supposed to be produced. In the secular Western world religion is on its retour – without a well-functioning alternative. Conscious receptiveness for positive inspiration should be developed. The universe is created as an open system, in which humans possess the potential to take responsibility for the development of their talents. Unpredictability is the result of creativeness. Wegot the material and the spirit, and now we make whatever we think valuable: prosperity, social justice, respect for other inhabitants, such as animals and plants.
We come back to the rivals of the Western civilization. The Chinese and the Russians have different ideas about human greatness, especially with respect to the social and the environmental aspect. Hierarchy and domination do play an important role in their cultures. The Western world is a little different. Too little, as we discover now. The superiority has become suspicious, and Trump shows that the time has come for a take-over by other worlds.
Or is there an alternative? The history of colonization and slavery shows that Western civilization has always been a thin layer, covering the same primitive drives as we see everywhere through history. To prevent a total cultural collapse we should take our mind as a major subject of research. Together with an increase of mental knowledge, we should really improve our skills to reflect upon ourselves – not just read the literatue. Then learning becomes a highly emotional and affective affair. Now we are constructing robots, who are doing jobs,which need sophisticated calculation and precision. But we can also improve our typical human skill: developing and using our our creativity. It might be possible in the future that robots are constructed, which also develop personality on the basis of their own experience. Creative robots are not unthinkable. But robots can never take over human responsibility; in other words, the constructors can never say: “blame the robot, not me”.
In this way the Western world can use its legacy to truly become less irrational and less immoral. Then Western ideas on human rights and environmental issues might survive – at the benefit of all people in the world.
List of reference
Akerlof, G. A., R. J. Schiller (2009), Animal Spirits, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Camerer, C. et al (2007), Neuroeconomics: How Neuroscience Can Inform Economics, in: Maital, S. et al (2007), Recent Developments in Behavioral Economics, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Keizer, P. (2015), Multidisciplinary Economics, A Methodological Account, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Parsons, T. (1951), The Social System, New York: Free Press
Parsons, T. (1978), Action Theory and the Human Condition, New York: Free Press.
Associate Professor of Economic Methodology
Utrecht University School of Economics
Utrecht, 17 August 2017