Understanding the Growing Resentment Directed Toward Biology and Nature—The Philosophy of John Searle

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In an earlier blog post I mentioned a book by Robin Dunbar and his colleagues entitled Evolutionary Psychology. Dunbar et al. draw heavily from the work of philosopher John Searle. Using Searle’s work as a background, Dunbar et al. make an observation that stunned me. Consider the following quote:

Searle argues that language and ToM [Theory of Mind] are crucial to the generation of institutional facts and therefore to culture as we know it, because an institutional fact is inherently symbolic [i.e., how the conventional acceptance of money facilitates exchange] and therefore utterly dependent on language. We need ToM to understand that facts of this kind are arrived at by collective agreement and that they exist in everyone’s mind in the same way (that is, we all possess the same belief).

What stunned me was this idea that ToM or Theory of Mind is “crucial to the generation of institutional facts and therefore to culture as we know it” (quoting Dunbar et al. again).

Side bar—Theory of Mind puts forth the idea that people are minded—that is to say, have minds—and that the minds of people are knowable by other minded people. ToM is often described as the study of how “minds know minds.” To illustrate in the negative, autism is characterized by a diminished capacity to engage in ToM. People on the autism spectrum (which would include ADHD and the now defunct Asperger’s) have a difficult time reading or understanding other people’s minds. For more on this theme, see Simon Baron-Cohen’s book Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind.

Why did this stun me? Well, for two reasons: 1) attachment researchers (Dan Siegel would be an example here) put forth the idea that ToM plays a large role in the development of early safe and secure attachment (i.e., mothers “mind the minds” of their infants), and, 2) ToM is part and parcel of EF or Executive Functioning in that ToM plays a role in such EF skills as empathy, perspective-taking, mental time travel (i.e., imagining the future), and attention shifting. Taken as a whole it would seem that there is a dynamic relationship between such things as early secure attachment, ToM, Executive Functioning, language, culture, and the development of institutional facts (such as money). Simply stunning. If any part of this dynamic whole is compromised, then the whole itself is compromised it would seem. (1)

I love Dunbar’s work (contact the Foundation for a copy of my summary of Dunbar’s book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language), but I had to know more about this John Searle. I downloaded a couple of Searle’s books to my Kindle. (Yes, I use a Kindle for some of my book reading because it is just too darn convenient. Guilty.) Turns out that Searle, like Bowlby, pulls from areas like cognitive science, information processing, evolution (which is the connection back to Dunbar), ethology (animal studies), sociology, and psychology. I love this guy! I began reading Searle’s work. Stunner number two. Searle makes a number of stunning comments concerning why postmodernism resents and, as a result, attacks biology and nature. Why is this important? Let me explain.

In the conclusion to my book Bowlby’s Battle for Round Earth, I hint at the possibility that what ultimately led to the downfall of Bowlby’s theory of attachment was the rise of the postmodern attack on biology and innate behavioral systems starting in the 1970s. I used Anthony Stevens’ book Archetype Revisited to support my claim. Bowlby sat on Stevens’ DM committee, so Stevens had more than a passing familiarity with Bowlby’s work. Consider this quote from Stevens’ book (page 123):

One of Bowlby’s major achievements was his success in putting the infant and its basic needs centre stage. This, as far as normal development and psychic health are concerned, was his greatest contribution; but to many feminists, it was his greatest sin. Instead, they [postmodernists] embraced the tabula rasa [Blank Slate] fiction of the standard social science model, so emphatically promulgated by the academic departments in which they were reared, and flatly rejected the notion that infants could have any innate requirements other than the need to be kept warm and fed.

Simply, attacks against Bowlby were in fact attacks against biology and nature. This assault against nature and biology had (has) many fronts. Suffice it to say that such seemingly unrelated ideas as behaviorism and self-esteem both came out of the desire to deny biology and nature in specific, and reality in general (more on this in a moment). I agree with Stevens’ assessment in part because Bowlby himself railed against both behaviorism (specifically, John Watson’s work, arguably the father of behaviorism) and the self-esteem movement as being too reductionistic and vitalistic respectively. But, honestly, all I had to go on were Bowlby’s occasional admonishments of behaviorism and the self-esteem movement, and Stevens’ brief assessment of the standard social science model as he calls it. It’s darn hard to find research that critically evaluates the rise of postmodern thought in such areas as psychology and sociology. Well … I hit the motherlode when I discovered Searle’s work (thank you Robin Dunbar and colleagues).

In the rest of this blog post I’m going to simply get out of the way as Searle swings for the bleachers. Searle pulls no punches as he explains the growing resentment directed toward biology and nature. If you believe in such things as nature, evolution, and biology as I do (heck, I’m a geologist), then it behooves you to have at least a working understanding of “The Resentment.” I find it amazing that such a Resentment can even exist. As Searle makes clear it does exist and it should be taken seriously because it permeates many aspects of our culture (speaking of Searle’s institutional facts). John Searle … take it away.

At times like these it is a good idea to keep the following continuum in mind, one I have blogged about many times before (and described in some detail in Bowlby’s Battle):

worldview <==> ideology <==> methodology <==> intervention

This continuum comes from the work of systems theorist Gerald Midgley.

In his book Mind, Language And Society—Philosophy In the Real World, Searle presents a listing of psychological ideologies that all hail from the materialism worldview. These ideologies may appear to be different when viewed from the level of intervention, however, when viewed from the level of worldview—in this case materialism—they are the same. Here’s Searle’s list with snippets pulled from the text for descriptions (to save time):

  • Behaviorism says that mind reduces to behavior and “dispositions to behavior.”
  • Physicalism says that mental states are just brain states.
  • Functionalism says that mental states are defined by their [direct] causal relations [which rules out any systemic causation].
  • Strong Artificial Intelligence says that minds are just computer programs implemented in brains, and perhaps in other sorts of computers as well.

Here’s how Searle defines the materialism worldview that ties together the above psychological ideologies:

In spite of this variety, all contemporary forms of materialism known to me share the objective of trying to get rid of mental phenomena in general and consciousness in particular … by reducing them to some form of physical materialism. Each of the forms of materialism I have mentioned is a “nothing but” theory: each denies, for example, that pains are inner, qualitative, subjective mental phenomena and claims, to the contrary, that they are “nothing but”—behavior, computational sates, and so on.

Again, Bowlby railed against behaviorism because he recognized that it was a “nothing but” theory that sought to reduce the innate, biologically-mediated behavioral system of attachment to nothing but some form of conditioning. (See Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment for his scathing critique of Watson’s “Little Albert Experiment.”) All of these materialistic, nothing but psychological ideologies express a worldview that wishes to attack nature and biology. Simply, these ideologies wish to deny “the real” or realism. After Searle takes materialism to the woodshed over its desire to deny reality, he turns to another ideology (this time from the world of sociology) that also wishes to deny reality: postmodern framings of psychology.

Before we move to postmodern motivations within psychology, please note that the ideology expressed by Strong Artificial Intelligence is the same ideology that motivates posthumanism: the desire to transcend all biological constraints. Posthumanism probably expresses the most direct and obvious resentment of and attack upon nature and biology. If you use a smartphone, surf the Internet, order movies by Netflix, read eBooks (as I do), buy on, or update a Facebook page, then you are well on your way to becoming posthuman. My guess is that you mindlessly engage in these activities and rarely reflect (using EF skills mind you) on how these activities, taken as a whole, express a resentment of nature and biology. I have to chuckle because there are now commercials for smartphones where kids are stumbling around taking pictures of trees and birds, and acting in condescending ways toward parents over their direct connection to and representation of nature. (2) I’m sure the irony is not lost on advertisers. As Robert Hall writes in his book This Land of Strangers, “Advertisers these days include words like home, community, local, neighborhood, relationship, and other relational words [like nature] to tap into our [largely unmet] need for community. Is capitalism great or what?” On to postmodern framings of psychology. Lets listen in as Searle comments on where he feels the motivation behind postmodern framings of psychology come from:

[I] think there is a much deeper reason for the persistent appeal of all forms of anti-realism [such as postmodernism], and this has become obvious in the twentieth century: it satisfies a basic urge to power. It just seems too disgusting, somehow, that we should have to be at the mercy of the “real world.” It seems that our [mental] representations should have to be answerable to anything but us.

It was John Bowlby who suggested that our early attachment relationships play a big role in forming what he called Inner Working Models or schemas of inner mental representations. Bowlby drew a straight line between our innate, biologically-mediated behavioral system of attachment and our mental representations. (Note: Searle draws the same straight line in his work on consciousness.) Bowlby went even further by suggesting that Inner Working Models can become collectivized (possibly in the form of Searle’s institutional facts) and passed from generation to generation (not unlike Jung’s archetypes, a point that Stevens makes in Archetypes Revisited). In essence, Bowlby said that we should be answerable to the connection between biology and mental representations (Jung and Searle as well). Postmodernists reject this claim out of not only disgust but also out of a will to power. A bit further along we hear Searle tell us that

the motivation for denying realism is a kind of will to power, and it manifests itself in a number of ways. In universities, most notably in various humanities disciplines, it is assumed that, if there is no real world [e.g., no nature or biology], then science is on the same footing as the humanities. They both deal with social constructs, not with independent realities. From this assumption, forms of postmodernism, deconstruction, and so on [i.e., self-esteem, self psychology, resilience, etc.], are easily developed, having been completely turned loose from the tiresome moorings and constraints of having to confront the real world.

Note that Stevens and Searle agree that university humanity departments—starting in the 1970s with the rise of the self-esteem movement and self psychology—were (are) breeding grounds for postmodern thought in the area of psychology. Searle gives us this “bottom line”:

If the real world is just an invention—a social construct designed to oppress the marginalized elements of society—then let’s get rid of the real world and construct the world we want. That, I think, is the real driving psychological force behind antirealism at the end of the twentieth century.

So, whether it is materialism, postmodernism, or posthumanism, the overarching goal is to throw out or deny nature and biology and its many constraints, in essence, to start afresh with a Blank Slate (a la Steven Pinker’s work). Upon this Blank Slate we will create our own worlds, our own realities, our own psyches. But as Searle correctly points out, once we are no longer moored to reality or to nature or to biology, a whole new world of potential abuse of power opens up. Who exactly gets to create this new world? For what purpose? For what power? I think this is why we have cautionary tales like Brave New World, 1984, and even the original Matrix movie. Which would you take, the blue pill or the red pill? As Hall puts it, “Power gives, but power also takes away and oppresses.”

Both postmodernism and posthumanism are about breaking down wholes, breaking down systems, breaking down relationships. As Hall observes, we live in a time when people want “the benefits of relationship without the commitment and accountability that might encumber us.” Let’s face it, biology and nature are encumbrances, and they ask us to be accountable. I would suggest that any pornographic process, at its core, is about seeking the benefits of relationship without commitment or encumbrances. Hall writes, “In so many aspects of our lives we have learned to live à la carte: to disaggregate the whole into just the pieces we want, thus fracturing the relationship into pieces. ‘You can have it all’ has morphed into ‘you can have only the part you find desirable or attractive.’ ” It’s not social media; it’s “à la carte” media. “The risk [of technology] is that we exercise extreme control that narrows and even isolates us in the choices we make;” Hall warns us, “we might call it the ‘new narrow.’ ” For more on this theme of how technology, especially Internet technology, can act to narrow or imprison our viewpoints see Robert McChesney’s book Digital Disconnect.

So, why is there growing resentment directed toward biology and nature. Searle gives us two overarching reasons: 1) abject disgust directed toward nature and biology, and, 2) the will to power, the will to exert control over others, especially psychological control. An attack on nature and biology is an attack against humanness and human relationships (i.e., Bowlbian attachment relationships). Why is any of this important to philanthropy and making grants? Well, I certainly cannot speak for all of philanthropy, however, here are a couple of examples from the work we do here at the Foundation.

We support groups that have as their goal preserving, protecting, and promoting nature. This certainly is a worthy goal. However, I’m not sure these groups are aware that they, at some level, are fighting a growing resentment directed toward biology and nature. In addition, I’m not sure they know where this Resentment is coming from and why. It is a research area of mine and I have a difficult time discerning the motivation behind this Resentment. Bowlby rails against this Resentment if you know what to look for. Anthony Stevens provides a glimpse. In her article entitled Why Is Attachment In the Air, feminist psychoanalyst Susie Orbach hints at the origins of this Resentment. Searle is the first writer that I know of that steps up and says something like, “Look, there are a number of people—many of whom are in university humanity departments—that simply are disgusted by and otherwise resent biology and nature, and, as a result, they couch that hatred in all manner of postmodernist thought. The postmodernist will to power is the antacid that keeps the gorge that would be the disgust of nature and biology from rising.” Here’s another example.

We work with groups who have as their goal to improve human relationships, especially mother–infant relationships. But, again, I don’t think these groups are aware that this Resentment of Relationships exists and that as a part of their work they have to recognize and address this Resentment, a Resentment that actively seeks to degrade relationship. I know it is a tall order but this type of work has to start somewhere. I’m just glad that there are social critics out there like Bowlby, Stevens, Searle, Hall, and Orbach who we can learn from and be guided by. I’ve learned tons from these writers and many others, and I try to pass along as much of this learning as I can (as evidenced by this and many other blog posts).

Start by being critical and start by keeping Midgley’s continuum in mind. If you read about how drugs more potent than cocaine are being used to treat ADHD, then say to yourself, “Hmmm … an intervention that looks at the brains of kids as ‘nothing but’ the flow of neurotransmitters—physicalism.” If you read about how behaviorism is commonly used to treat depression, think, “Hmmm … a clear case of reducing mind to behavior dispositions.” Or if you receive a grant proposal that talks about “increasing self-esteem,” think, “Ahh yes … let’s start with a Blank Slate and create whatever world we wish divorced from the real worlds of nature and biology.” I have to admit, I do crack a smile when I read articles that talk about how taking kids into nature will increase their self-esteem. This is tantamount to using nature as a way of increasing a child’s hatred for nature and biology. Hmmm … Watson’s conditioning perhaps? I guess you could call this a schizoid “love–hate” relationship. The irony is not lost on me. But there again, I think allowing kids to form primary attachment relationships with smartphones (see my post of October 16th, 2013) is a schizoid form of love–hate relationship. I’ll let Hall have the final word on this new era of schizophrenia: “In the new world of technology, we have made it acceptable to be absent when we are present.” Welcome to the widening new narrow.

(1) – Early this year social work professor Ken Corvo sent our Foundation a copy of a Ph.D. dissertation by John Plummer entitled Executive Functioning and Romantic Adult Attachment in Intimate Violence Perpetrators. Through a grant from our Foundation, Dr. Corvo is investigating the dynamic relationship between adult attachment, EF, and domestic violence patterns. In his dissertation Dr. Plummer observes, “A potential link may exist between developmental insults that inhibit secure attachment and the integrative capacity of executive functions needed for social problem solving.” A bit further along Plummer writes, “These deficits have the potential of disrupting the neural circuits that are recruited to form the distributed networking needed to accomplish the goal-directed tasks of executive functioning.” Plummer states the following concerning a study that looks at “impulsive aggressive inmates” versus “non-impulsive aggressive inmates” within a particular prison population: “Where these two [groups] differ is in … verbal skills. Impulsive aggressive inmates lack verbal skills.” Plummer gives us this “bottom line”: “A lack of verbal skills and neurological resources may be the reason for their executive dysregulation.”

So, it would appear that verbal skills bridge between early attachment experiences and later development of EF skills. And this makes sense given that the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) uses assessment of linguistic structures contained within a semi-structured interview to arrive at an overall attachment pattern or style. In cases of “wordless terror,” it’s possible that the attachment behavioral system has become activated to the point that EF skills and cognition are difficult if not impossible to access (they, in essence, go offline to use a computer metaphor). In such cases aggression and acting out may be the only paths open to survival. (For another take on this theme, click on this link to view an article that talks about how researchers are finding that spanking is tied to later increases in aggression and decreases in verbal skills.) Plummer’s research tends to shed light on the dynamic relationship that exists between such things as early secure attachment, ToM, Executive Functioning, language, culture, and the development of institutional facts (such as money). Again, if any part of this dynamic whole is compromised, then the whole itself is compromised. All of this begs the question, “What happens to us as a society as technology chips away at such things as language development, secure attachment, Theory of Mind, and Executive Functioning?” Here’s a follow-up question: “Will we become so reduced that the only paths open to us toward survival will be aggression and acting out?” As I write this note, yet another school shooting has taken place, this time in Nevada by a twelve year old shooter.

(2) The twin processes of “parentifying” children and infantilizing adults are often called upon to express resentment directed toward biology, nature, and innate, biologically-mediated behavioral systems such as attachment, caregiving, and sex. For more on this theme, see Kay Hymowitz’s book Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future—and Ours. Contact the Foundation for a copy of my executive summary of Ready or Not. Parentification and infantilization processes are staples of the advertising and pornography industries—industries that share much in common. For more on this theme, contact the Foundation about the possibility of receiving a copy of the video we funded entitled The Pornography of Everyday Life, written, co-produced, and narrated by former UNM American Studies professor Dr. Jane Caputi. One of the main motivations behind most pornographic processes is to attack biology, nature, and innate behavioral systems. For more on this theme, see Susan Griffin’s book Pornography and Silence—Culture’s Revenge Against Nature. I find it fascinating that there is such a close alliance between pornography and postmodernism, two ideologies often presented as being opposed to each other. I would suggest that their similarity is revealed at the level of worldview. That the Internet and the digital age has opened up a veritable flood of pornography should come as no surprise. For more on this theme, see Frederick Lane’s book Obscene Profits: Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age.

As a side note, Bowlby railed against parents parentifying their children or otherwise engaging in role-reversal behaviors. Bowlby suggested that role-reversal behaviors were the royal road to insecure attachment. Again, I would suggest that role-reversal behaviors—such as adultifying children or infantilizing adults—expresses a desire and motivation to deny or attack both nature and biology. Poet and social critic Robert Bly writes about the process of infantilizing adults at the level of society in his book Sibling Society—An Impassioned Call for the Rediscovery of Adulthood.