Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Internal Alchemy Part Five: Interior Life and Social Context

(Warning! This post has content that includes graphic images of human misbehaviour!)


In previous posts about Internal Alchemy I showed how important it is for people who follow a spiritual path to develop a strong ethical compass. And in the last post, I showed how Buddhism has traditionally attempted to inculcate one in its followers. Unfortunately, I also showed how it, and other religions, have failed to created an adequate mechanism to get practitioners to overcome a bias towards passivity and conventionality in that ethical compass. I also suggested that the reason why religions fail to produce ethically-advanced individuals is because they are afraid that chaos would result if people were encouraged to think for themselves.

This last issue is not trivial. There has been a lot of misery associated with spiritual innovation. One need only contemplate the escapades of the group known as ISIS to see how badly things can go wrong when religious people escape ecclesiastic control.

Yet One Example of Religious Innovation by ISIS
In fact, a great deal of horrific human history has been created by spiritual innovation among large groups of people. So it isn't enough to just "Let every flower bloom"---there also has to be some way of differentiating between good and bad ideas.

An absolutely key element is the need for some sort of formalized structure. To understand this point, it might be useful to consider two of the intermediate steps in the creation of the modern European justice system:  trial by combat and trial by ordeal.

Trial by Combat and Ordeal
Until the popularity of "Game of Thrones", I suspect that many people didn't realize that at one time there were several ways of settling disputes besides judge and jury. The most well-known one was trial by combat. This involved actual fights between people over a dispute where there was neither a witness nor a confession.

Not Fiction, an Actual Trial by Combat

Less well known were the trials by "ordeal". These were mechanisms to settle legal disputes where one or both of the parties were not warriors and who therefore didn't have recourse to trial by combat. But in some cases, the sovereign brought in ordeal as a mechanism to discourage trial by combat. The ordeal could sometimes be absolutely horrific---such as asking people to grab a red hot iron bar or pull a stone out of boiling water. The idea was that if the burns inflicted became infected, the person was guilty, whereas if they healed cleanly they were innocent. Other ordeals were a lot less awful---these included seeing if someone choked while eating the Host or who could hold their hand up longest in front of the Cross. (This reminds me of the test on the television show "Survivor" where people were tested to see who could keep their hand on a post the longest.)

Trial by Ordeal of the Red Hot Iron Bar

This system of setting disputes and criminal cases seems absolutely bizarre to modern people. Why would anyone support such an absurd system? The thing to remember is that there were few other options---and some of them were far worse.

Prior to the establishment of any sort of legal system, people had the option of either ignoring any sort of harm done to them or taking the law into their own hands. If they opted for the first, then they ran the risk of being identified as "easy pickings" for any individual or group that wanted to abuse them. This meant that in most cases, individuals and groups tended to retaliate. And because the important issue for long term survival is not revenge, but rather deterrence, the retaliation tended to be disproportionate or "massive". You can't allow someone to think that the punishment for getting caught is just "the price of doing business." Because the retaliation tended to be disproportionate to the original insult, this invited an even more massive tit-for-tat response. The result could be an escalating vendetta or feud that could cause massive misery for all and sundry.

If you want to understand the situation, consider the sort of spectacular violence that occurred between gangs of bootleggers during prohibition. If someone stole from a gang, there was no option of going to the police. Moreover, the gang cannot really afford to have hired protection for every stage of their enterprise. So, instead, they create "examples" of anyone who is foolish enough to try to cause them problems. And because the price for being humiliated was so high, retaliatory responses also called for a response---which then escalated into an on-going feud or vendetta. This sort of thing creates a very horrible problem for society.
St.Valentines Day Massacre: Dispute Without a Mechanism for Settling

The value of trial by combat or ordeal is that it allows the authorities to settle disputes cleanly and finally. To use a modern hypothetical example from Mexico, if the leader of Los Zetas accuses the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel of hijacking a shipment of illegal drugs, they currently have no other mechanism for settling disputes than a war. This will kill lots of innocent bystanders and weaken both organizations to the point where one or both might be vulnerable to being taken over by a third group, such as the Gulf Cartel. So it's actually in the best interests of everyone to have the dispute settled cleanly and quickly by an all-powerful third party---no matter what the outcome. This is because in many cases, it is better for a clan to lose the case---without appearing weak---than to win after a protracted war. This means that if there were a powerful sovereign who was able to introduce trial by combat or a trial by ordeal, it would be in the best interests for all the cartels to adopt them and abide by the results.

Of course, the important issue is that trial by combat or ordeal have bugger all to do with "justice". But in many societies a nebulous concept like justice isn't very important compared to the necessity of keeping the peace. And, truth be told, our present civil and criminal systems really don't have much to do about justice either. If they did, there would be no "too big to fail", "too big to jail", "SLAPP" lawsuits or prosecutors pressuring innocent people to plead guilty. In actual fact, I suspect that many poor people would be objectively be better off if their criminal or civil cases could be settled by combat or ordeal than by a legal system that is so driven by money.

Hearsay Evidence
I've pursued this digression into the criminal justice system in some detail because I wanted to make a point about how important society at large is to "spiritual" ideas like "guilty" and "innocent". Trials are dispute settling-mechanisms that are so ingrained into our collective psyches that many people labour under the assumption that when someone has been found guilty in a court trial, that means that they have been proved guilty---when in fact nothing of the sort has happened. Our prisons have many innocent people, and anything like an objective look at the system shows this.

I also wanted to use the example of trials before a judge and jury to introduce another important idea: rationality comes from culture.

Generally, people have a naive belief that we are all atomic individuals who use their minds to make decisions about the world around them. But the fact is that our culture controls both the content and structure of our thought processes. I think the best way of explaining this comes from the way people are allowed to present evidence during court proceedings, as expressed in the pop culture.

Take the example of "hearsay". Generally speaking, what is inadmissible as hearsay in a court turns on the issue of whether or not the person giving the evidence is available to be cross-examined. This is because people are notorious in their ability to confuse and ball-up information when it is transmitted from person to person. Consider the game of "telephone".

No Ability to Cross Examine in this Chain of Evidence!
In the Norman Rockwell painting above, each person in the chain of transmission has an opportunity to "degrade the signal" as it were. This means that the story can be changed from the original. These changes amplify with each link in the chain of transmission, because the odds of the story going back to the original are almost nil. The problem from a legal standpoint is that the last person in the chain doesn't have any real knowledge of the actual event being discussed, so there is no way a skillful questioner can ferret out the truth of what really happened.

This is important, as people routinely have a hard time being precise in their language and thought processes. And a lot can depend on precise language. To cite a non-legal example, at work I once got sent off to cut holes in a carpet in order to access electrical outlets in the floor. I was given a map by one of the staff members that showed the system by which all the outlets installed in the building could be located. This woman swore up and down that all the floor outlets in the building were all in exactly the same places on the floor. I went, didn't find any outlets and came back twice to double check with her because I was having no success. The first time I came back, she was adamant that the entire building was all the same. The second time she still insisted on this but after further prodding she added "except for the first floor"---which was where I was working. 

This woman wasn't trying to be a pain in the butt, but her mind is laid out such that she does this sort of thing fairly regularly. On top of that, she lacks the self-awareness necessary to have some humility about her ability to think things through and express herself clearly. As a result, every statement she makes is "absolutely right". If someone like this came into a court of law and was allowed to make statements without skillful cross-examination, she could create an enormous amount of chaos in people's lives (e.g. "I am absolutely sure that the accused is the person I saw standing over the body with a knife in his hand".)

The legal system deals with this problem in several ways. First of all, it creates an aura of fear and awe that forces most people to take the issue more seriously than they normally do with anything else. That's why judges wear robes and decorum is usually enforced in a way that rarely happens anywhere else in our society. Secondly, the laws of evidence exclude most evidence sources that cannot be subjected to cross examination. In the case of my carpet cutting exercise, a skillful cross-examiner would simply have reminded my co-worker that there are penalties for not being accurate and asked her "Are there any exceptions?" Finally, there is an appeal process if there is suspicion that there were errors in the first trial.

The important point to understand about the above is that the rule about hearsay is just one example of a collective process that is designed to force people to be better at reasoning than they would be if they were left to their own devices. And this process hasn't come about because some genius devised the system. Instead, there has been a process of trial and error over hundreds of years where some spectacularly unjust ruling was over-turned and a "legal precedent" was set that governs all future trials. These decisions have built up over time and help make decision-making at trials more and more logical and fair.

The same trial and error process has worked in other fields to create collective systems to ensure that competent thinking takes place. One simple example comes from aviation. When the B-17 bomber was first introduced prior to WWII, there was a spectacular crash that destroyed the prototype shortly after take off. When investigated, it was deemed as being caused by pilot error---even though the people at the controls were some of the best test pilots available. This raised concerns about whether the bomber was simply too complex for human beings to fly. After a careful investigation, it was decided that it wasn't, but it was too complicated for pilots to be able to consistently remember everything that they needed to remember to do before take off. (The original crash was caused because the pilot forgot to turn a switch that would remove a locking mechanism on one of the flight controls.) The solution was to create a checklist of things to do on a clipboard, which solved the problem. Only recently have the same issues been identified in medical situations and the checklist has created similar improvements.  A book titled The Checklist Manifesto has been published that shows how a simple idea like this can have tremendous results.

Of course, probably the most well-know cultural construct that improves the ability of human beings to think clearly is the scientific method. Basically, it is a cultural mechanism which helps humanity formulate hypotheses about how the universe works, and decide which are correct and which are false.

There is No Hard Division Between the Interior and Social Life
This post has been trying to point out a very controversial position that I have never seen once expressed in writings about spiritual practice, namely that there is no hard and fast division between the "internal life" of someone who practices something like Internal Alchemy or various forms of meditation; and, the social life they live as a member of a specific society. Even someone who practices as a recluse and stays away from all other human interaction still carries with him the culture that he was exposed to up until the time he decided to walk away from the "land of dust". The books you read, the stories told to you by your parents, the schooling your received---and most assuredly the rituals and teachings of the religious tradition you follow---all have a "social" impact. If you want to understand how spiritual practice like internal alchemy works, you have to allow for the impact that society has on the minds of followers. And I would argue that the morality that we need to develop hand-in-glove with spiritual practice comes from this social dimension. In a future post I will develop this and link it to the concerns I have about the need for developing a moral basis to spiritual practice.  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Mencius: the Dao and Spin

Book Two of Mencius' "Duke Wen of T'Eng" starts with one of Mencius' followers, Ch'en Tai, asking about why the teacher won't "stoop to serve" by going to work with one of the "August Lords" to help him to become an Emperor. He quotes a common saying of the time, "Bend a foot to straighten ten". Mencius refuses to accept this suggestion and responds with two arguments, first that people shouldn't force themselves on their betters, but then another that I find more interesting:
"And besides, bend a foot to straighten ten is talking about profits. When it's a matter of turning a profit, don't people think it's fine even if they bend ten feet to straighten one?"
Mencius expands this point by relating a story that seems somewhat strange to our ears. He mentions a chariot driver named Wang Liang who got assigned to an archer named Hsi by Lord Chien. The two of them went out one day, didn't catch anything at all, and Hsi told Chien "He's the worst driver in all beneath Heaven." When Wang heard about this, he asked Hsi to go out with him again. This time, Hsi shot ten birds in one morning. This time he said "He's the finest driver in all beneath Heaven!" Mencius then said that Hsi wanted Wang to drive for him all the time, but Wang refused. He explained himself to Lord Chien in the following way,
I drove hard for him according to the precepts, and we didn't catch a single bird all day. Then I drove shamelessly for him, and in a single morning we caught ten birds.--- ---I'm not accustomed to driving for little people. I'll go now if you please.
Mencius finishes the chapter by bringing the analogy from the driver, through the saying about "bending" to "straighten".
Even though he was a mere driver, Wang was ashamed to compromise for an archer. They could have piled birds and animals up like the mountains, but he still wouldn't do it. What kind of person would bend the Way to please others? You've got it all wrong:  if you bend yourself, you'll never straighten anyone else." 

The first question that comes to mind is how someone could be "compromised" as a chariot driver for an archer. I'm not an expert on ancient Chinese mores, so I can only speculate. But lots of societies have taboos and rules about hunting. For example, we have laws in Canada about not wasting meat. We also have hunting seasons, etc. There are also a long list of birds and animals that we are forbidden to kill. We do not kill vultures, for example, because they clean up dead animals and therefore deal with unsightly messes. We also are forbidden to kill porcupines because they are one of the few animals that a lost and starving human can easily kill with a club---which means that it is everyone's interest that they be abundant and not afraid of people. We also don't "jack" deer with bright lights, use salt licks, or hunt bears at garbage dumps---because it is "unsporting". Nor do we use high powered rifles in the more settled part of the country because missed shots are a menace to innocent bystanders. I can only assume that in Mencius' time there were similar rules governing hunting. It appears to me that Hsi had no qualms about breaking them, yet Wang was appalled.

In other words, Hsi was concerned about profit, whereas Wang was concerned about the "Way", or, Dao. What is the Dao for Wang? We don't know. But I would suggest that from my reading of Mencius that he would suggest that there is an ethical/social dimension to it. A person can't just be concerned about making profits and still adhere to the Dao.


I got thinking about this because we have just had a week where the excesses of capitalism really seem to have exploded across the media. In Canada the CBC broadcast a major expose about an investment firm that has encouraged super wealthy people to "give" their money to shady corporations in the Isle of Man as a way to avoid paying taxes.

In addition, we have the spectacle of Volkswagen being caught deliberately spoofing the emissions control regulations on their vehicles and investors buying up generic drug manufacturers so they can increase the prices charged on important life-sustaining drugs by as much as 7,000 percent.

These are pretty clear-cut examples of capitalist excess. But there are other examples of "bending a foot to straighten ten". For example, the place where I work has big signs all over the place talking about how much carbon has been saved by the energy saving light bulbs that have been installed there. A friend of mine who knows about such things just about choked when he saw them. He said that the carbon savings are grotesquely over-blown. And I know for a fact that the lights, which are designed to go off at night, are switched on five nights a week by the cleaning crew as soon as the computer turns them off to save energy. As a result, I strongly suspect my friend is even more right than he thinks.

What is happening with the signs at my workplace is "spin". That's when an institution hires professionals whose job it is to read every situation in the most favourable way possible and promote that to the general public as objective fact.


When I was at university I read a paper about scientific accuracy that talked about things like parallax. This the seeming displacement of an object as seen from two different places. An example of this is when we look at the hands of a clock and see how the time seems to change if we look at it from one side of the hand, to directly over the hand, to the other side.  This diagram from Wikipedia illustrates another example.

How Parallax Works
The point that the philosopher was making was that when a scientist takes a measurement such as with a thermometer, for example, he has a choice to make. He can try to "fudge" the data to support his hypothesis by looking at viewpoint "A" or "B", or, he can look at 90 degrees to the object, and write down what the temperature really is. This is a ethical choice. In the same way, at every step of the scientific process, a researcher has opportunities to "fudge" her results to conform to her expectations. This means that scientific objectivity is ultimately a question of ethics. This ethical stance is the exact opposite of spin, which is the process of avoiding the direct view and instead selectively choosing a viewpoint that will always make a preconceived viewpoint look the best.

What this means is that the activity we call "spin" is not only not objective, it is profoundly unethical. And the people we call "spin doctors" are not only not objective, they are profoundly unethical. In other words, spin doctors are evil. The person who wrote the copy that adorns the walls of my workplace is an evil person who makes their living by committing evil acts. That is why my friend reacted with visceral disgust when he saw them. 


I don't think that Mencius would call a spin doctor "evil". I very much doubt that any Daoist I have heard of would either. "Evil" is more of a Western, Judeo-Christian concept that stems from ancient Persian ideas of there being a dualistic battle between two gods, one representing "good" and the other "evil". In contrast, the tradition of Western Philosophy tends to see what we call "evil" as being misguided behaviour that is caused by ignorance and a stunted psyche. My reading of Chinese thinking would suggest that it is much more in harmony with the philosophical tradition than the Judeo-Christian one. So while I don't really believe in the idea of "evil", I know that many of my fellows citizens do. So, at least once, I want to call spin "evil" more as a rhetorical device than anything else.

I did this because I don't think that most people really understand how damaging spin is to our society. It is a subtle poison that rots the foundations of science and democracy. That is why, like my friend who reacted to the posters on the walls of my work place, I have a strong emotion of revulsion and disgust every time I see it.

I mentioned earlier that one of the nastier things revealed this week is the way speculators have been buying up companies that produce generic drugs and then dramatically jacking up the prices they charge. Here's one of these miscreants being interviewed by Bloomberg "News".

This is probably one of the best examples of spin that I have ever come across. This corporate leech has been very carefully primed by his marketing people and he is being interviewed by the usual type of corporate reporter who was probably selected for her good looks---she certainly doesn't know how to ask tough questions in an interview! If you watch the interview Shkreli goes through the following arguments:
  1. the drug is under-priced compared to cancer drugs
  2. the cost of production is not the only cost of production
  3. the company needs money to provide "dedicated patient services"
  4. the company will ensure that no patients will be denied the drug for financial reasons
  5. market competition will create new and better drugs
Let's look at these statements one-by-one.

First, with regard to the relative pricing. Starvation never justified malnutrition. So pointing out price gouging by one drug doesn't justify it in another. Shkreli is implicitly assuming that there is some sort of objective, fair, market mechanism that is setting drug prices. But economists will point out that medical services---including life saving drugs---are what they call an "inelastic market". No one who is suffering from a terminal illness would turn down a life-saving treatment because of cost. As a result, there can never be any competitive pressure exerted to reign in excessive prices. Moreover, because of the fact that medical services are governed by professionals, most patients are totally at the mercy of doctors and can only do what they are told. This means that even if it were possible to find cheaper alternatives to a given therapy, the patient would lack the knowledge necessary to evaluate the different alternatives with any hope of being able to find the optimal one. This is why medicine is a regulated profession and doctors are sworn to the Hippocratic oath and nurses to the Nightengale pledge. (It is also why engineers in Canada wear an iron ring.) There can be no competitive market in such situations, which is why regulated professions follow ancient systems of governance based on a sense of "duty" and ritual oaths. 

Shkreli lists off a bunch of production costs that he says bumps the price well above the $1/pill cost of making the drug. He mentions distribution, "FDA costs" and other manufacturing costs. If there are extra costs associated with the product, why not itemize them and add them to that $1 figure? I would suggest that if he did so, he would have come up with a figure that was only marginally bigger than that $1/pill. So instead, his spin doctors told him to reel off these other vague items and let the listener assume that these are very significant costs that simply cannot be avoided.

Next on the line is "dedicated patient services". This is a delightfully ambiguous term. What does it mean? Probably not much more than advertising. Have you ever heard from a drug company when you were being treated for an illness? I haven't. My interactions have all been with doctors, nurses and pharmacists---which are all regulated professions that have been decoupled from private enterprise and the free market. The only "dedicated patient services" I care about come from doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.

As for the idea that this drug company can charge whatever it wants for this drug because they will make sure that "poor folks" still get it is patronizing. First, it only refers to the specific drug in question. What about all the other drugs that Shkreli has purchased but haven't been subjected to the media spotlight? Do the protocols all cover them? Secondly, it only refers to this moment in time. Any voluntary actions by the company can be removed whenever the media spotlight is taken away. Third, how is this protocol to be enforced? Can Shkreli prove that every doctor, hospital, and insurance provider will know that this special protocol exists whenever a poor person darkens their door with this problem? Or will they just look at the price on a computer spread sheet and say "yup, that's the price---and you can't afford it"? Special deals always get lost in the shuffle when poor and disenfranchised people get involved. That's what the class system and poverty is all about. That's why we have a welfare state instead of "noblesse oblige".

Finally, here's the biggest old canard of them all to finish off. The free market will give us new wonder drugs if we just throw enough money at it. I call "bullshit" on this. First of all, contrary to the spin, most primary research is not done by private entities but rather through government facilities, universities, and, charities. That's because businesses are not in business to find out how the universe operates but rather to make money. And when a business does do research to find some sort of practical application, such as a new drug, it leans heavily on primary research done for the public good. So why do we trumpet up the last stage of the work and ignore the first part?  Spin.

In fact, private research is a tremendous drag on scientific progress. There has been a real change at universities over the past few decades where private money has infiltrated science labs. Where once scientists routinely collaborated informally and people used to be able to wander into each other's labs to see what was going on, now doors are locked and people are secretive about experiments that could have practical implications. Even worse, because of the pernicious influence of big money, a lot of scientific results have been twisted as companies do things like publish only positive results and bury any studies that suggest that there might be problems. In drug research this is a tremendous problem. Just do a quick Google search of "buried drug studies" and lots of interesting stuff will come up, here's one that looked especially interesting. So far from empowering research into new drugs, the free market leeches off public research and damages scientific progress by reducing collegiality and reducing the reliability of published data.


Canada is currently in the midst of a federal election right now, so there is a tsunami of spin washing across the country. Of course, the lame-stream media is full of it. But what I find especially distressing are the people I know who are just as excessive in their use of spin in their expressions of partisanship. Loyalty can be a wonderful thing. I know my dear and lovely wife is totally loyal to me---as I am to her---and it fills me with a warm glow. But people shouldn't give their loyalty to frail institutions like political parties. Instead, like Wang and Mencius, we should be loyal to the Dao. It is true that for life to continue we all have to make compromises, but we need to make them grudgingly and only if they cannot be avoided. We shouldn't embrace them as a "career path". So when someone asks us to "bend a foot to straighten ten", remember that, as Mencius says, we usually end up bending ten to straighten one. True leadership inspires, it doesn't seduce.