Depth Psychology and the Predicament of the Modern Mind

5 09 2009

Remarks on Cosmos & Psyche by Richard Tarnas

The first two parts of Richard Tarnas’ book, Cosmos & Psyche, are a great discussion about the predicament of the modern mind. They stand alone and are indirectly related to the main thrust of his book, the astrological interpretation of history (covered in the remaining six parts).

In these first two parts, Tarnas reviews the current mindset of the modern person. With the rise of science, the world has become disenchanted, soulless. This is in contrast to earlier epochs and indigenous cultures today that see an anima mundi, a world spirit, the entire cosmos as a living, conscious being. The earlier, primal worldview had meaningfulness in the happenings of events.

The participation of the individual human in this larger encompassing world soul, was always a mystical way of living – the so called participation mystique.

But science made the external world simply the inert mechanistic movements of meaningless phenomena. The only meaningfulness is within the human psyche, nothing but a subjective projection, not anything objective. Science has been good in that we are given greater control over and autonomy in nature, but it has come at the great expense of existential alienation.

Tarnas quotes cognitive scientist Steven Weinberg, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

One of the fundamentals of the modern outlook is the subject-object split.

This basic ontology of the world to the modern person appears to have the knower (i.e. the person or the subject) to be separate from what he or she knows about, the known (i.e. the object, the things in the world outside of him- or herself). The subject-object split is a split between the inner experience of consciousness and the outer “objective” real world. The Romantic sensibility favors the inner. The scientific, classic Enlightenment outlook favors the latter. Both the Romantic and the Enlightenment views hold to this basic split between inner and outer. Today, we unconsciously think “me versus the world” is natural and absolutely real. As Tarnas says, this may be the foundational belief of the Copernican revolution. It is the basis of the Copernican paradigm shift that ushered in the modern world view.

Tarnas then makes a good case – which I totally agree with – that the emergence of psychology, particularly depth psychology, holds the key to transcending this paradox.

“Depth psychology engaged the Enlightenment’s epistemological challenge set by Kant as it attempted to discern the deep structural principles that inform human subjectivity, those enduring patterns and forms that unconsciously permeate and configure human knowledge and experience.Yet, contrary to Kant’s narrow list of a priori categories, these underlying forms were repeatedly discovered, beginning with Nietzsche and Freud and above all by Jung and his successors, to be mythic, symbolic, even numinous in nature.”

In the process of investigating the mind, psychologists, especially William James and CG Jung, began reflecting and criticizing what rationality and rational knowing means as well. The conventions of the modern scientific rationality suddenly became part of the focus of investigation. “Depth psychology attempted to bring the light of reason to the deep mysteries of human interiority, yet often witnessed the converse: the light of reason reevaluated, transformed, and deepened by the very mysteries it sought to illuminate.”

Also, depth psychology led to the recognition that the vast majority of influence on a person’s behavior and thoughts was entirely unconscious. This conflicts with the Cartesian “cogito ergo sum” of Enlightenment view that the person is highly aware and in control of his thinking and behavior.

Among other things, Jung expanded the concept and domain of the unconscious to be both personal and collective in nature.

But the real crux and breakthough that psychology brings to the predicament of an isolated psyche in a meaningless cosmos is the concept of synchronicity. A synchronicity is, says Tarnas, “the dramatic coincidence of meaning between an inner state and a simultaneous external event seemed to bring forth in the individual a healing movement toward psychological wholeness, mediated by the unexpected integration of inner and outer realities.”

Like dreams, synchronicities move the psyche from its problematic one-sidedness toward greater wholeness and individuation. They serve to deepen the integration of conscious and unconscious, and pushes the individual to surrender his/her “conscious attitude of knowing superiority.”

Synchronicities open the psyche to a larger vision.

Synchronicities, according to Jung, work through archetypes. “The underlying meaning or formal factor that links the synchronistic inner and outer events .is archetypal in nature.”

One of the keys to archetypes is that they can be understood in a multiplicity of ways. There is no single meaning to an archetype. And archetypes, as my dream worker teacher Jeremy Taylor frequently points out, seem to blend from one to another. For example, the Oedipus archetype is about many things: a man’s sexual attraction to his mother, the inter-generational conflict in a Patriarchal culture (where sons overthrow their fathers), blindness and seeing via ESP, among many other interpretations. The Oedipus archetype can turn into the Hero archetype and the Hero archetype can turn into the Divine Child archetype which has elements of the Trickster archetype, and so on.

In his later years, according to Tarnas, Jung conceived of archetypes as being a field in which the psyche and cosmos both exist. The field is both inside the person and outside in the world.

It is not that archetypes cause events, in the conventional understanding of causality. But that there is a larger field of meaning underlying and patterning all that happens, in the external world as well as in the interior of the psyche.

Because of the multidimensional and multivalent nature of archetypes and plurality of meanings that archetypes have, there is no strict determinism in what happens in events. There is freedom of participation and co-creation. Though the archetypal signature is discernible to the person within the flux and diversity of the observed phenomena, the events and outcomes themselves are shaped by many relevant circumstantial factors and co-creatively modulated and enacted through human will and intelligence.

Thus by synchronicity and its archetypal meaning, things are not concretely predictive, but “archetypally predictive.”

With this background and metaphysical introduction, Tarnas sets the stage for his astrology. He considers astrology to be a class of synchronicities.

Astrology correlates external events (the positions of planets) with internal consciousness and personal dispositions. Again, there is no strict causation or concrete predictive capacity, because the archetypal nature of planet symbolism allows for a lot of wiggle room of particular circumstances and human responses. “Individuals with the same alignment could be on either the acting or the receiving end of the same archetypal gestalt, with altogether different experiential consequences. Which of all these related multivalent possibilities occurred seemed to be determined largely by contingent circumstances and individual response rather than by anything observable in the birth chart or planetary alignments per se.”

Anyway, I am enjoying the book and will read more of it. But these first two sections have been very meaningful for me.

Consciousness and Economics

1 09 2009

Healthcare provides good examples of the relationship of consciousness to economic outcomes.

For example, the other day my friend Patty K. sent me a factoid from Integrated Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal. It said,

Chronic disease accounts for 70% of annualized US healthcare costs, mostly due to continual hospital admissions for acute exacerbations or comorbidities of underlying chronic disease.3 Clearly, our current model of curative medicine is failing and not fiscally sustainable. We need an affordable, scientifically based model to bridge to an acceptable new medical paradigm—for doctors, patients, and the nation.

Here is a dramatic quantitative indicator — 70% of total healthcare costs in the nation — and it all stems from a mindset, in this case, about curative approaches to health taking a higher priority than preventative approaches.

To me this underscores the primacy of consciousness in economics. Thus, if you change the qualitative consciousness, and you will change the quantitative economic outcomes.

Another example of consciousness in economics is again found in healthcare. Here my friend Alok S. brought my attention to a great piece of investigative journalism of  Atul Gawande printed in The New Yorker.

It chronicles how norms and values are created and upheld by different groups, even when those groups are ostensibly doing the same thing, in this case, practicing healthcare.

One group of doctors and administrators in McAllen, TX is very entrepreneurial and financially incented, to say it kindly. As owners of their clinics, and making commissions on every referal to other specialists, the cost per patient care in that community is one of the highest in the country.

By contrast, other groups — such as those in El Paso, TX, or Minneapolis, MN — even though practicing the very same professions, take more of a service and collective sensibility to their work. Patients are NOT profit centers. Consequently, health care is delivered to their community at half the cost of the McAllen group.

In both examples, the consciousness of the economic agent determines objective cost outcomes. How that agent comes to have the particular consciousness is of great importance.

Traditional economics has assumed a very singular, mono-type of human being: rational, self interested, perfectly knowledgable about all relevant data to his or her economic well being.

Not only is this a silly view of human nature, but, as these two examples illustrate, it completely misses the real leverage point of making economic differences.

The emerging area of “behavioral economics” is a good start in breaking this down. But so far, in my opinion, the work relies on a very rudimentary behavioral psychology. The behavioral economist still holds him- or herself separate from the phenomena that he/she is observing.

What is needed is an economics science that is self-reflective and examines its ontological assumptions. This is what I am interested in. It is a conscious economics.

For more on consciousness and economics, click here:

What is it to Be a Genuinely Noble Economist?

12 01 2009

A personal interrogation prompted by attending the American Economic Association Conference, San Francisco, January 2009

I had an enjoyable holiday that took me up and down California visiting friends and family. Along the way I had some beautiful hikes in the ever-marvelous California landscape. I capped off my trip by attending the American Economic Association’s annual conference that took place this year in San Francisco.

I am an economist, but I’ve never been sure if that was a conscious career choice or a reaction to circumstance. This, coupled with the atmosphere of economic crisis, led to a spontaneous outburst of moral introspection as I walked the halls and break-out sessions of this conference. I am still not sure if what I heard at the conference was a balanced view of current economics, or mere projection of my own inner doubts.

I heard a lot of tentativeness. Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard mentioned how widely the Washington Consensus is being questioned, especially outside of the economics profession. He reviewed a commission’s report on the past 30 years of World Bank research and projects. The commission’s conclusions were ambiguous as to what really worked for economic development. “I was amazed at how important non-economic factors are — politics and institutions,” admitted Michael Spence of Stanford, the report’s chief author.

Tentativeness was present among Federal Reserve economists. The new lending facilities are greasing the skids for non-bank market makers, according to Tobias Adrian of the New York Fed. When traders know they have guaranteed liquidity by the government, they are willing to take on more risk and clear a trade. But this only creates greater possibility for moral hazard – i.e. being irresponsible. “Should we create a credit facility for hedge funds?” he asked in droll somberness. Doubt!

In economics, there is this uncomfortable juxtaposition between knowing what is “really” going on (in the world) and doing the right thing. This manifests itself at both the personal level of the individual economist and the collective level of the profession as a whole.

The scientific, “positive” side of economics (knowing what is going on) is the bright area and where every one wants to shine. The moral, “normative” side (doing the right thing) is the black sheep and shadow of the two. The moral side is vague, problematic. The profession, in my opinion, gives it only lip service.

At the personal level, the conflict comes in the question, “For whom will you sing for your supper? For what cause and customer will you sell your skills of rationalization?” (Teaching economics is kind of a neutral position, in my opinion.)

The conflict has a ‘catch-22′ in it. Positive, orthodox economics holds that morality is not important at the individual level. All is preference. And the sum of individual actions, despite possibly being mutually antagonistic, nevertheless results in a social benefit and progress. Built into positive economics is the assumption that the normative component will work itself out in the aggregate.

Well, given today’s global warming and economic melt down, that happy outcome obviously didn’t happen. Maybe we need to focus more on ‘doing the right thing.’

In one session, presenters discussed specific incentive schemes for rationing resources. Here were some good practical policy formulations for dealing with protecting endangered populations of fish. Good work, yet I was surprised at the relative minor importance this kind of topic had in the overall scheme of the conference.

My observation reminded me of Herman Daly, University of Maryland (who was not present). Environmental economics, so construed today, he says, is a kind of half-baked add-on to economics. What is truly needed is an ecological economics, that is based on an entirely different “pre-analytic assumption.”

Ecological economics is based on the assumption that the human economy exists INSIDE OF the biosphere, not unto itself. In this framework, “resources” become explicit in the production function (along with “labor” and “capital”). And there are different classes of capital – “natural” and “built” – which, furthermore, are not substitutable.

Along with other distinctions, the ecological framework changes the whole economic game. Instead of maximizing output per unit biosphere, the objective becomes maximizing biosphere per unit output. Right scale (of the human presence in the biosphere) joins the two conventional systemic goals of efficiency and social equity.

An ecological economics is not going to arrive anytime soon, according to Dale Jorgenson, in the session on A New Architecture for the U.S. National Accounts. It is still a thing to be developed, he said. Valuing intangibles will always be hard, another presenter said. In fact, so hard that asset bubbles will never be detected by our current accounting conventions, according to David Stockton of the Federal Reserve Board. (However, Jonathan Parker, of Northwestern, pointed out how the United Nations’ System of National Accounts – the “SNA”-did better at seeing the asset crash coming than the U.S. National Income and Product Accounts.)

Accounting systems are important. They tell us how we are doing. Michael Boskin underlined Paul Samuelson’s remark that the national income and product accounts rank as one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. “It’s hard to imagine a discussion of the economy without them,” said Boskin.

It is becoming clearer and clearer to me that measuring our ‘economic’ well being is the real question of economics and it depends on our own moral character.

Yet, moral character – the content of our character – is outside the realm of conventional economics, practically by definition. Moral character, emotional maturity, psychological depth, soul, individuation, self actualization, authenticity, integrity – whatever you want to call it – makes a difference in economics. And it is not just that different moralities have different economic outcomes. Different moralities lead to different kinds of economics. The former concerns individual choice, regardless of the moral fabric of society. The latter is an aspiration for a norm that one wishes a society, or one’s community, to live by. It is a desire for a way of living in relationship with others.

A good economist clearly sees what is and what could be. Nobility comes in choosing a greater social norm to support, than simply seeking a more attainable personal gain. And the choice is not necessarily altruistic, even in the face of big opportunity costs. A desire for a community of friends that one can trust and in which one finds support is as self-centered as any.

In a session entitled The Economics of Non Cognitive Skills, Dutch economist, Lex Borghans presented a way to marry personality to economics. “Where does personality show up in economics?” he asked. “Everywhere,” he said. In career decisions, in preference for merchandise, in investment returns to human capital, and so on.

There are economic consequences of different kinds of personalities, but what about the personality of the economist? Morality is an exogenous variable to the economist. It is less fun to shine light on one’s inner motivations, than it is to model emergent phenomena in self-contained systems of variables.

Again, the tension between positive and normative. How you construe your reality has an ethical injunction. If you see natural resources as purely a source of (current period) income, you will ‘drill, baby, drill.’ If you see it as capital, and its extraction is, therefore, drawing down capital, then you will tend to conserve it.

Thankfully, there was a session that addressed my dilemma. Debating Pluralism in Heterodox Economics. It was a mish mash of unrepentant Marxists, critical theorists, and sundry philosophers. The session was sparsely attended – maybe 20 people at most in the room. Still, one presenter, Andrew Mearman, University of West England, made some cogent remarks about ontology. Frederic Lee, University of Missouri, made a plea for greater pluralism in the field, to allow for multiple views and less hurt feelings. He offered a definition of economics as ‘social provisioning.’

On the second day of the conference, I ate breakfast in a greasy San Francisco café, next to the hotel where the conference was taking place. On the wall was a Homer Simpson cartoon. Homer’s little boy Bart has a sheepish look on his face. The caption reads, “If I do something bad, and nobody is there to catch me, does that make me good?”


Is this the ethic of the Economist, or just mine?!

After the conference, while driving home along the northern edge of San Pablo Bay (Highway 37), I heard a story on NPR’s Marketplace program. It was about Bernie Madoff and cheating the public. How is it possible? How to guard against it by regulation?

The reporter asked, how could Madoff have gone for so long (decades) without being detected by the regulators. There had been several complaints and filings made about his fund, but they were ignored by the SEC and others. The reporter went on to explain that many employees of the regulatory bodies went easy on the regulated firms. They hoped to get hired by them. In the private sector, such people – economists, for the most part – would make several times what they made working for the government.

The reporter interviewed behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational. Ariely described an experiment where people were given the chance to cheat in a simple game that had monetary gains.

The researchers paid an actor to stand up after 30 seconds and say, “I solved everything. What should I do?” – obviously cheating because nobody could finish all the questions so fast. The experimenters simply said, “If you’re finished, go home.”

What did this create? Did people cheat more or less after seeing this?

It depended on the sweatshirt the actor was wearing.

The experiment was run at Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh there are other universities including the University of Pittsburgh. All the students who participated were Carnegie Mellon students. If the cheating student, the acting student, was wearing a Carnegie Mellon sweatshirt, he basically got people to cheat more. But if he was wearing a University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt, he got people to cheat less.

When the person who cheats stands there with a Carnegie Mellon sweatshirt, he gives a social justification for a new social norm to emerge about cheating. But when he is wearing a University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt, all of a sudden people said, “This is cheating. This is what the other people in the bad school are doing. This is not what we’re doing.” And therefore people cheated actually less.

“The moment we remind people about their honor of themselves, their own standards, they stop cheating,” said Ariely in a phrasing that really captured me.

The interviewer pressed him: Will the publicity around Bernie Madoff – a guy who has been around a long time, a Wall Street insider and is now found out to be running a Ponzi scheme – will this inspire people to cheat more or less?

It depends on how we frame it, said Ariely. If we are framing it as he’s a part of Wall Street, it will be a part of the in group and will increase what is acceptable in the bankers’ eyes in terms of cheating. But if we are able to frame him as an outsider — somebody who is from a different investment firm, with a different approach not typical of Wall Street — then we might actually decrease cheating with that approach.

This reminds me of Jay Ogilvy’s theory of “the some” and how it sets up a provisional pluralistic culture. (See below for my review of Ogilvy’s book, Creating Better Futures.)

I was always attracted to study economics in order to be more streamlined in how I provisioned for myself. I wanted a style of work that cut to the chase and allowed me the greatest personal creativity and autonomy, with the least bit of kow-towing to someone else’s program.

Maybe this is because I am the youngest of three sons and have a problem with authority. It could also be that my father provided a good example of responsible, creative freedom. He was a self employed architect who designed, financed and built many a spec home.

In any event, economics, to me, offered the clues as to how to live like this.

I’ve always thought that economists are modern-day priests. They are today’s advisors to Kings. They filled the vacuum left by the Church during the rise of science, industry and secular society. The problem, I think, is that Priests, at the archetypal level, are absolved of morality, unlike the King. To be a King is to lead, and to lead requires acting from moral integrity. In today’s economics, and in my life, there is a need for leadership; a need for the Priests to become more like Kings.

All that I can tell at this point is that leadership requires three things: (1) Clarity about your innermost truth and desire; (2) Conviction about your purpose and gift; And, (3) courage to act from your conviction, whether it is popular among your peers or leads to riches or not.